Kengtung – a most Shan city

Tucked away in the far east of Shan State of Myanmar, the provincial town Kengtung (pronounced “Chengdong”) is set against a green mountain backdrop. Due to its cultural diverse surroundings the city makes a good base for hiking trips into the countryside.

travel tipp info“Shan” is a collective term that embraces many hill tribes (Akha, Karen, Lahu, Ann people…) living in the Shan State area. People themselves prefer to be called “Dai”, as “Shan” is what the military junta named them. The name “Dai” signalizes their cultural proximity to Thai people, too.

Kengtung’s position between green hills results in hot sunny hours during the day, soft rain showers in the afternoon and very chilly evenings and nights.

Arriving in Kengtung

After a 5 hours bus ride from Tachileik to Kengtung we arrive at the only cheap place in town, Harry’s Backpackers guesthouse (15 US dollar for a double).

The corpulent, nice host lady already smells the business. She makes her cut in each and every tuktuk, noodle or tour we order. However, as valid information is a rare good in Myanmar, we are very thankful that the lady helps us organize our stay.

The internet connectivity in the whole country of Myanmar is disastrous. In addition, there are regular electricity blackouts. Kengtung is not the exception. Our guest house host turns off electricity during the whole day and at night it’s the government that turns the off-switch. It does not matter much, as we are mostly on the road anyways.

Good coffee is hard to find. We are happy to discover Café 21, the only place with great espresso and a relatively stable internet connection, too. The western style and Shan kitchen dishes both are well portioned and very tasty. Our waiter is not older than 10 years, but it is a relatively relaxed job he has. There are not so many customers in the small café and he is not forced to do hard labor in a jade mine or on an opium plantation. He is no exception here. Many children start to work very early in Myanmar to support their household. Education is kept short.

Walking through the streets of Kengtung is fun for extraverted people. Everybody wants to talk to us and if they have a cell phone we are stopped to take a picture. The Shan people are very curious and not very used to foreign visitors. They are happy to see that we are interested in their country as this easternmost part of the Shan state is not very well connected to other touristic areas in Myanmar.

Although the different ethnic “minorities” of Myanmar make up 40% of the country’s inhabitants, most of them live in open conflict with the repressive military government. Almost every ethnic group has its own army, too. They all are fighting against the military junta until today.

This is one of the reasons the military limits the places where tourists are allowed to go. Eastern Shan state is relatively hard to reach for tourists. There is no other option than to fly in by plane or to cross the land border from Thailand. Update: It is now possible to get the permissions to cross the land routes with your own vehicles. Thanks, Manuel, for this information! (see comment box below).

Discovering the city

Visiting Kengtung is a full day program. We start our tour at the local market and spend most of the morning here. The market is crowded with village people from different tribes who sell their farm products. Some sales people are from hill tribes. Akha women wear colorfully woven clothes and large hats decorated with many silver rivets and chattering chains.

travel tipp infoTip: The tea shops in the middle of the market are a perfect place for people watching. You get to taste local food like Shan noodles, which are spicy and addictive.

Souvenir stands offer scarves with local colorful weaving patterns, cheap sunglasses and electric gadgets from China. The many hill tribe handicraft stands are a good place for souvenir shopping. A lot of locals also go shopping here.

A walk through interesting residential quarters leads us to a smaller lake in the east of the city. We visit the pagoda on the lake. It is not as tidy, but the views around the lake are very nice.

From the central Kengtung Lake you can see a large Buddha statue standing on top of a small hill. The walk there leads through small allies with a lot of street life scenes. Next to the standing Buddha we discover the “cultural museum”. The small museum displays dusty clothes and rice bowls in dirty showcases on two dark stories. It’s not really worth visiting, but we get an impression of the cultural diversity of the different hill tribes living in Shan State.

Highlight of the city walk is the Wat Jom Kham. Legend says that Buddha himself converted two dragon women to Buddhism at this place. We can only speculate on how he did that. The monastery complex has a large golden stupa.
The hot afternoon sun shines through wooden windows of the temple and many dust particles reflect in the air. No bird sings and no wind blows through the room. The honking scooters and rumbling tuktuks in the streets cannot be heard here. Inside the temple it is absolutely calm. The Buddha statues are not the biggest ones. Golden in color with their beautiful smiles, they are said to be as old as 800 years. The walls are painted with scenes from Buddha’s life.

After sunset, small barbecues pop up at every street side in the city. They sell a choice of shashliks with chicken liver, chicken meat, pork, ladyfingers or tofu and prepare it on a small charcoal barbecue. The food is served with a spicy sauce. We meet with some backpackers from Brazil and Spain on the shore of the city’s central lake for a tasty hot pot dinner served in clay dishes in one of the well frequented local eateries.

After dinner, the locals meet up at a night fair nearby to celebrate the full moon from where we can hear loud Asian club beats. We walk through the fair and are surprised to find both elder and younger people, men and women alike, even monks, very engaged in gambling.
The games are pop up stands on the meadow. A basic roulette game seems to be the local favorite. You can bet on colorful animal figures like peacocks and dragons instead of numbers. Background music plays loud from old speakers. Women scream when the dices are rolling in order to influence positively their luck. A small booth sells paan.

travel tipp infoPaan is also called “Kun Ya” in Myanmar. It is the local “chewing gum” and consists of betel leaves wrapped around betel nut slices and chewing tobacco. One of the side effects of chewing that combination is a deep red coloring of your mouth and teeth. You chew the folded leaf with ingredients for some minutes and then spit a red saliva on the ground.

Everybody spits on the meadow, drinks, smokes, cheers or gambles. Unobtrusive beggars walk around. A local man invites us for a beer and tells us about the recent elections. He shows interesting pictures from the vote count.

Our new friend also explains us that the can of Thai brand Leo beer in our hands is a fake. It’s been produced in Laos. You can determine it by the color of the ring-pull. The original is golden, this one is silver. We enjoy the taste anyways.

Hiking trips

Kengtung offers a lot of choice. You can visit waterfalls, hill tribes, jungle terrain and old colonies. Yet, it is not easy to find a guide who you like and trust. Naturally, all tourist guides are interested in the money you spend on them. But there are those who like the hill tribes which you visit with him, and there are those who think of them as inferiors. No money or goods will go to the village people you visit unless you find the right guide. And the villagers need support.

After some “interviews”, we find two nice, young and open-minded guides who take us to a day trip each: One day we visit hill tribes close to the Chinese border and the other day we explore colonial buildings.

Leaving Kengtung

It’s an expensive necessity: for continuing our visit in Myanmar we have to book a flight ticket to Heho, Inle Lake, as there is no legal way to cross the distance by land.

travel tipp infoTip: Against all intuition, local travel agencies offer better flight prices than the internet. Make sure you book early and plan the trip around the flight dates. Flights from and to Kengtung do not leave daily and cost around 100 US Dollars.

The airport looks like a house in a dead end street. We fly out hassle-free to Heho at Inle lake, our next station.

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7 thoughts on “Kengtung – a most Shan city

  1. Hello, very interesting your blog! I have to give you an update regarding crossing Shan overland… I’m leading a motorcycle tour right now, we entered from Thailand in Tachileik, then riding to Kengtung and afterwards all the way to Taungyy and Inle Lake on the NH4. So, with the right permits is possible for foreigners to cross Shan, and even ride our vehicles (thai licensed motorcycles!). Very excited… only a small handful of foreigners have been on that road!

    • Hi Manuel!

      Thanks for the news! Hopefully traveling will get a bit easier for us in that amazing country.

      Safe travels and thank you for reading!


    • Hello,
      Can you advise us where you get this permit and how much it cost? We need our own vehicle or we can take buses?
      Thank you, we ‘ll cross the border in few days probably.

      • Hi Rudy,

        as far as I know there is an “immigration office” in every Burmese city. We got our trekking permits from there.

        If there is an overland bus I cannot say, I would ask the locals. E.g. the lady at Harry’s Guesthouse is helpful and has contact to some English speaking guides who can help you get around. Ask for Abby or Sing, these are very nice guys.

        Enjoy your time in Myanmar!

        Bests Maria

  2. Great!thank you fit those information.hope we can manage to pass all the way overland.
    I’ll tell you in few weeks.

  3. We liked very much you told about your guides to the “hill people”. One you name as “Sing”. I can see they are respectful to the people they visited with you. Can you give us their names and email adres/telephone numbers ?

    • Hi PJ, sorry we do not have any contact numbers. But you can ask the lady in Harry’s guest house. She knows her way around. Hope that helps!
      Enjoy your stay! Maria

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