Andrew Matthews, author of “Follow Your Heart”
The Best Kept Secret
Kyaing Tong’s landscape rucks up into great folds, cloaked in dense forest and cut by rushing mountain rivers. This is the heartland of the Golden Triangle, where insurgent armies battled for most of the last century to gain control of the opium trade between Myanmar, China, Laos and Thailand.
Kyaing Tong (pronounced as Chai Dong) is only accessible by air from inside Myanmar and travellers entering Myanmar overland from Thailand cannot travel to the rest of the country. One of Kyaing Tong’s biggest attractions is its lack of tourists and the frontier feel it generates. Due to the very difficult logistics and cost to reach this intriguing enclave of hill-tribes, very few tourists venture to the area. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be one of the less than 10 foreign tourists in town, literally. When we disembarked, there were 7 foreigners including 5 of us. The other 2 were an Italian couple. During the next 2 stops, only locals came in and out of the plane, but I was certain that once in Kyaing Tong, there would be others. There were only 2 Yangon Airways flights to Kyaing Tong weekly. At the time of departure, striking out our names, the other 3 Italians left on the namelist, confirmed by the immigration officer – and these people were the only foreigners that visit Kyaing Tong.
Flight from Heho to Kyaing Tong
This was our third flight on the ATR72 Yangon Airways. Being an ATR prop means that it flies low enough to see some terrific views and the amazing county this is. I like their slogan – you’re safe with us!! Don’t be put off by the logo – a flying elephant. Their service was terrific. Friendly flight attendants, clean plane and pleasant flight – it operates like a bus service. If flight attendants of other airlines were to complain about their work, I will ask them to look at the excellent service attitude of Yangon Airways.
Our flight from Heho to Kyaing Tong was a 3 hours 35 minutes journey, although it looked near from the map and both places in Shan State. So how does a typical Yangon Airways flight route look like?
Flight from Yangon to Kyaing Tong YH937 operates every Wednesday and Sunday via Heho, Mandalay, Tachilek. Then from Kyaing Tong to Yangon is via Mandalay.
Just count. YH937 requires to make 5 take offs and landings, flight attendants had to clear the seat pockets in the 10 minutes stop, demonstrate safety instruction, serving food – 5 times in a day. I saw how the pretty ladies worked quickly yet gently, it was not easy to stay smiling. Kudos to the Yangon Airways staff – you made our journey a joyful experience. And thanks for the 10 minutes stop at Tachilek Airport at the border of Thailand, I got to receive email messages on the Blackberry. OMG! For a moment, I thought I were in office!
But once we arrived at Kyaing Tong Airport, there was no network connection. We exited the plane and were greeted by refreshing breeze. The airport was miniscule and simple. No automated baggage handling system. Once we entered the airport building, we had to look for our luggage. There were only 2 carts.
Francis, our trekking guide
Kyaing Tong was the only place I hired trekking guide. I saw a necessity rather than luxury. Throughout the trip, we relied on drivers to bring us to places. But here, we couldn’t ask the driver to double as trekking guide. We would lose our way in the mountain and could not communicate with the tribes people. With no phone network, who could come to our rescue? Plus we had to get government permit before going to the mountains and we had to be back at the check-point by 6:30pm as overnight stay is prohibited. How to manage it ourselves without a guide?
We had Francis as our local guide for the 2 day treks. Born into a hill-tribe family (father is Akha, mother is Lahu), Francis knew from young what life is for hill tribes. For 8 years since he was 12 years old, Francis was sent to an orphanage managed by a Christian missionary. This was where he picked up English. He was well versed in the different cultures and traditions of the local people, the various developmental and environment projects in the area and speaks excellent English. He said he wanted to learn Italian. His command of seven languages, some learned from his fellow classmates from different hill tribes.
Francis said we were the first customers he had for June. He said this on 18 June.
Ask for Francis if you book your trekking guide with Exotic Myanmar or Princess Hotel. I paid exotic Myanmar USD20 per day, probably Francis got less than that. Francis’ phone number: +95 0 84 22025 or +95 0 94 9032678
Day 1: 17 June 2012 – Sense of Isolation
The rugged terrain of eastern Shan State contributes to the sense of isolation – Kyaing Tong is an outpost of development in a sea of forested mountains where Shan, Ann, Akha and Lahu tribal people follow a way of life that has changed little in centuries.
We were warmly welcome by Mr Ng, the owner of Princess Hotel at the front desk. Later, Mr Ng said his son works in Singapore at Accenture as an internal auditor. I wonder whether his son wants to come back to the hometown.
The local town was small and remarkably simple. Definitely travellers who rely on connections to the outside world with laptops and Blackberrys wouldn’t know what to do in Kyaing Tong. Well, we had already gotten use of the life with no communication but we didn’t expect no electricity. Mr Ng suggested that we take a walk through the town to experience the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life in a small rural community. It had a prominent population of Chinese (descendants of immigrants from Yunan Province). They can speak and write Chinese.
As we entered the main street, I felt as if I had walked into another world. Cars were practically non-existent, shops closed as it was afternoon at 5pm. Mr Ng said the small town would burst into energy in the morning from 7am to 12 noon. We had dinner at 乐天楼 Lod Htin Lu Restaurant. It serves authentic Chinese cuisine, a lot better and cheaper than Golden Banyan Restaurant, contrary to what locals recommended. The best thing was, the boss and staff know could speak Mandarin!
Kyaing Tong offers some of the most amazing treks off the beaten track and the chance to get close with some of the ethnic minorities. Goh and I decided to challenge ourselves and opted for a hike that was considered ‘moderate to high’ in difficulty.
The next day promised to be an intense trekking day to very remote villages. We felt at home as we could watch Channel News Asia, then later power failure. I had never experienced it until that day. The moment everything stood still.
At 6pm, the power went off. I had to put the emergency battery-operated desk lamp to good use. Power shortage is very common in Myanmar. The silence was deafening. 15 minutes later, the generator started, and there again we had electricity but no air-conditioning. We borrowed an electric fan from the front desk. The power cut off a few times throughout the night.
Day 2: 18 June 2012 – VISIT TO THE LIVING MUSEUM
8:30am, we bought some snack at the central market then the driver drove us on the Chinese-Myanmar highway of Mai Yan. One hour later, we arrived Pin Tauk, at the foot of the mountain. Today we should be visiting three tribal villages of Lahu, Ann and Akha.
The entrance to the village is an impassable quagmire of water buffalo pools and foot holes. The driver parked the mini bus at one side. It could not proceed further. Francis told us to get down to walk to the first collection of wooden house. There was nothing to see at Lahu Village as the people do not wear traditional costume so we skipped this. Then it started to rain and we seeked shelter at a grocery shop.
At this stage the reality dawned that ‘off-the-beaten-track’ in Kyaing Tong wasn’t anything like the trek we had in Sapa, Vietnam which was mostly gentle downslope. This was tough trek through rough, uneven terrain, steep uphill and downhill, muddy trails. There were rain showers followed by sunshine, creating a very humid climate.
As we ascended, I was starting to feel lower back pain, a chronic problem (Sigh!). I applied Yoko-Yoko to numb the pain. Francis knew I had difficulty. He made a walking stick improvised from nearby fell wood. Later, he made a few more made from bamboo for Robin, Dominique and Clement. These walking sticks proved useful especially when walking riskier down-slope. Huffing and puffing, I sweat my way throughout.
The trekking was on up-and-up basis, but large green forest provides us ample of shade to take occasional breaks. Armed with a wooden walking stick, I slowly climbed steep mountain faces. I took breaks more frequent than the guys and almost wanted to give up along the trail’s sidelines. Beaten by Mother Earth, the only relief was guzzling water and scarfing down the pineapple, cooked peanuts for a quick energy boost. The journey was awesome but it isn’t easy. It wound along a schizophrenic terrain. The scenery was stunning, but the actual hike… well… it was a real workout.
It was already 1pm when we arrived the Ann village. An animist village, it is life primitive. There were several scattered spirit symbols around the grounds of old stilt huts. The dogs barked announcing strangers were coming. Girls wearing the traditional black tunics and metal armlets and many kids gathered around us. They just stared at me. More kept on coming, many with babies cared on slings and breastfeeding. We did not see any men except the Shaman. The countryside in that area was sublime. They were delighted and amazed at our visit.
Ann people live in the higher places away from the civilization and their ways of life seem to us a bit hard. Francis brought us to the Shaman’s house. Shaman is the spiritual leader. We were introduced to the worshiping rituals and customs, the old belief of Spiritualism mixed with Animism. Strict rules and disciplines reign over the traditional belief of remote place dwellers. Here the villagers speak their native language. No one in the village can speak Myanmar national language.
Ann wear neat black tunics and metal armlets and blacken their teeth with betel nut and black dye. There were cultural reasons for tooth blackening. It was believed that only savages, wild animals and the demons of the underworld had white teeth.
Time to resume our trekking came. Going back to the trek, now with the heat beating very hard on us. I went to answer the call of nature behind the bush. There were no toilets in the Ann Village so everywhere can be a toilet. Robin and Dominique followed suit. Boys are a lot easier.
The hike started off well. Robin, Domininque and I were walking at the same pace. When Francis told us we were at the half point, I felt like I could reach our next destination, Akha Village with no difficulty. But, that all changed after a while. I was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe but I know I reached a point of no return. I was no longer able to walk for 2 minutes without wanting to take a break. One step at a time, I was slowly, painfully getting further from my group.
Francis stayed with me and encouraged me to keep on walking when I was about to give up. “Another 15 minutes”, he said. In fact, another 30 minutes ahead before we reached the destination. At this point, my feet and lower back were aching like hell. I was still increasingly facing the challenge of breathing. Every step was becoming more and more difficult. And so, with very little energy, I continued walking one step at a time. Slowly. Very Slowly. After what seemed to be an eternity, I saw a chapel. It was the best feeling ever!
High on the mountain overlooking the village was the Christian chapel for the Akha. Akha people are Christian but ancestor altars dominate the village and animism still rules daily life.
We encountered a woman preparing lunch for her 2 children. She wore a stunning headpiece made of silver and filled with meaningful pieces attached to it, representing her current status (married), number of children, wealth, etc. Akha women dress most beautifully among the hill-tribes and have a very ornate costume. The woman’s headdress is laden with silver coins, and the back features colored bird feathers. Francis made small talk with the woman and explained to us her intention.
3 women with children were selling souvenirs to me. We headed to a hut where we stayed for a bit, escaping from the castigating sun and later rain. Rain showers were frequent but they lasted for a while only. The host was one of the women we met just now. I did not buy anything from her. She was very friendly and inviting. I told Francis that I would buy something from her. I bought a belt, a cloth bracelet and a bag with stains of cockcroach wing, Goh warned me. Yucks! I was afraid cockroach would run out of the bag. But I still bought it.
Expecting rain any minute, every metre covered was a victory and a step closer to the ending point. The route now was primarily downhill and my added haste results in a few slippery near accidents before the last descent. Thanks to the walking stick, I came down “in one piece”. I asked Francis whether I would be awarded a certificate. Of course there was no such thing. With the walking stick in my right hand, I triumphantly stretched my arm, punching into the air….I feel elated – bring it on!
Day 3: 19 June 2012 – Palaung Village
Covered in sweat and dust, we miraculously stumbled out into a clearing and found our way to a wild-west town full of old ramshackle wooden buildings. The tiny self-contained village was a gorgeous collection of ancient wooden houses perched on top of a high hill offering a spectacular vista of the surrounding forests and rice fields. Like all other villages in the area, the residents grew rice for a living. This ethnic group is better off. The Palaung people have been doing this for many centuries, forever as far as the people here knew.
Francis brought us to one of the houses. The host, a 24-year-old mother and her child welcome our family with bananas, sunflower seeds and tea. We made the most of the experience and their generosity. Later, more children joined in. I gave them candies. Most households had satellite dish and electricity, a lot better than Ann and Akha tribes we visited yesterday.
We watched as most of the villagers quietly filed one by one into the living room for the late morning’s entertainment. An odd assortment of Buddhist relics, incense sticks, prayer beads, a portrait of General Aung San and The Lady Aung San Suu Kyi were arranged haphazardly around a television set, a DVD player several karaoke DVD.
Karaoke DVDs were from Thailand. There we were, a room full of tribal children who stared attentively at the television screen. By afternoon, we felt we were starting to get the hang of Palaung village life. Sipping daintily on freshly picked tea, we idly watched Francis chatting casually with the lady host, walked around her house and took pictures of the kitchen. Somehow, this forgotten Palaung backwater was starting to feel like home.
Next stop was the hot spring where people of Kyaing Tong come and bath in the small bath houses. There were some local stalls catering food and drinks to locals who are coming here to relax. We had lunch there. One of the interesting local delicacies as we checked was fried crickets! This place was a bit under-utilized and deserted. It could have developed into a popular spa resort if properly manage.
On the way back we stopped by at village where rice wine is cooked. Large metal drums are used for cooking the mixture of mountain rice and paddy husk. The cooked rice is shoveled out of drums onto the bamboo mats on the floor to mix with yeast made from rice. Then the mix will be cooled down and packed in plastic bags for fermenting for 2 weeks. Fermented rice will be steam cooked again in big drums with hot boiling water. The drum’s mouth will be tied down with clothes for placing large metal trays filled with water right on top of the drum to collect the vapour. The vapour drips through a slit opening through a wooden pipe on the side of the trip. This rice wine smells similar to Sake. We filled a 1.5 litre PET bottle. It just costs Ks1,500.
With the light diminishing and the black clouds now overhead, we headed back to town and visited several temples and lake. As we lay down in the comforts of beds and rested our aching muscles, I felt calm and contented while I thought about how, on a future day, long after our travel had ended, when the stress of modern civilization feels too heavy and the accelerated time of the new globalized planet too dizzying, we’ll be able to think back to our memories of the hill-tribes and be comforted by the fact that there is still a timeless place like this left in the world.