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Trekking in Kengtung Myanmar isn’t typically on the top of anyone’s Myanmar backpacking list. It’s way out of the way and most people don’t even know it exists!
When trekking in Myanmar, there are a few options to choose from. They all offer similar views of rolling terraced hills and include stops in the villages of different Hill Tribes. The most common trekking region is around Kalaw, with the 2-3 day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake being the most popular by far.
We really enjoyed trekking in Kalaw with the kids, and were excited for another opportunity to explore the countryside. I was trying to decide between the regions of Hsipaw and Kengtung (also known as Kyaingtong or Keng Tong).
Hsipaw is the second most popular trekking location, although the number of people coming here is significantly less than those visiting Kalaw. Hsipaw is easier to get to compared to Kengtung, and more commonly visited. Hsipaw also has the benefit of getting to experience this amazing railway journey!
It would’ve been the obvious choice. But, I can’t ever be convinced to go for the obvious choice!
Kengtung, in the Eastern Shan State in Myanmar, is well beyond the typical tourist track. The road east from Taunggyi to Kengtung is closed to tourists, making the area accessible only by flight. I really wanted to avoid flying in Myanmar, because I didn’t want to put any more money into the Junta’s pockets than I absolutely had to. However, if we were going to carry on overland to Thailand, I was going to have to fly at some point. The potential for a bit of trekking and a great cultural experience ended up being worth the flight.
Our Trekking Guide
I found our guide, Francis, via a Trip Advisor forum. Finding a guide was surprisingly difficult. The few guides mentioned in my (slightly outdated) Lonely Planet Myanmar guidebook didn’t return my emails. So, I reached out to the few that I found via Trip Advisor. Francis was my top choice as everyone seemed to rave about him on the forum. When he got back to me saying that he was available, we booked it. Now, there’s no contract, money exchange, or anything to confirm this booking. It really is just blind faith on both our sides.
Landing in Kengtung felt like landing in a different time and place. We were stuck in this tiny little room until we all had our passport and hotel information written into a ledger, the official record of our presence in the area. We caught an uncomfortable motor-bike/truck contraption to our hotel, and almost immediately upon our arrival I was handed the phone. It was Francis, our guide. He was calling to confirm our meeting time the next morning. I was instantly relieved, and we spent the rest of the day settling in.
It wasn’t long into our first day before I was incredibly grateful for Francis. During our three days with him I was reminded of this over and over again. He brought different “gifts” to different villages, had great relationships with the families we were visiting, and at a few points talked about various medical treatments he’d helped pay for. He truly cared about the people we were visiting, and it made our experience so much better. His language skills were also amazing! The hill tribes all speak slightly different languages, and he was able to communicate with each one we visited.
Make sure you check out the YouTube video too!
We began each day with a visit to the market. I love local markets, and the one in Kengtung is a fantastic local market. There was pretty much anything and everything available to buy. Lining the front was a whole row of food stalls. We ate breakfast here one morning, and also picked up fried chicken to bring for lunch on days 2 & 3. Randy & I tried fried bamboo worm, as it was the least scary of all the cooked critters, but Francis wouldn’t let the girls try it because he was worried their young bodies would react to it. We bought water, a funnel (to pour more easily from our giant water jug back at the hotel) and a bungee cord (for our friend’s 4yo to play with). When I said you could find everything, I meant it!! We also bought some small snacks to pass out as gifts.
Kengtung Trek Day 1
We left Kengtung after breakfast. The weather was a bit misty, and we were hopeful the rain would stay away. After an hour or so driving, we happily left the vehicle and began our short hike. Of course it always takes longer with the kids! But, the rain held off, it wasn’t too hot, and we all enjoyed being outside and stretching our legs.
Akha Hill Tribe
Our arrival in the first Akha Tribe village was the calmest. One lady stood by the side of the dirt road, with a large black cloth covering her head. It was used to keep the sun from heating up the metal beads on her head-dress. She took it off so we could admire the intricate details of the beading patterns, flowers and coins of her head-dress. And then she invited us to her house.
The 8 of us piled into a small kitchen. There was a kettle in the corner with a tiny kitten curled up beside it, and the only light was that streaming in through a window at the far end. Pots, dishes and various food items hung from the ceiling and the walls. A few brave children slowly stopped by to check us out. Partly, they were checking out the kids, and partly they were waiting for the treats they knew Francis brought. Francis told us that a number of people commented that our kids were the first blonde children they’d ever seen. We were just as fascinating to them as they were to us. It provided a nice exchange, and made me feel like we weren’t just there to gawk at their different way of life. They were gawking right back at us!
We lucked out!
Most of the women aren’t typically in the village during the day. Instead, they’re out in the fields tending to their crops. We happened to visit on a day in which they were preparing a village-wide feast, so everyone was in town in anticipation. The girls had fun comparing the head-dresses of the younger and older women. The older-women’s were smaller and less showy. What really struck me was that the younger women, even those in their twenties, were still wearing traditional clothing. I was worried that the culture and traditions were quickly dying away with the increasing prevalence of Western influence. It was nice to see some of these things carried on by the younger generation.
One lady we met was 40, and she had 8 children. Her children played around her feet while I was able to take a closer look at her head-dress. Kacela found some baby animals to play with, and it wasn’t long before all 4 kids were making themselves at home playing in the dirt! Francis explained that many of the Hill Tribes don’t have any form of birth control, so they tend to have a lot of children. Due to the lack of medical care, it’s not uncommon for women to have lost a child. Methods of birth control are starting to spread through the villages. With the number of children per couple decreasing, their quality of life is increasing.
Kengtung Trekking Day 2
The second day trekking around Kengtung began with weather very similar to the first! Thankfully, the dreary rain held off…mostly. We did end up pulling out our jackets at one point, but then we just got hot! Luckily, it was warm enough that when we did get a little wet we dried quickly!
Our first stop was to a rice wine distillery. The entire village produces wine, but each family has their own distillery. We watched the process, which wasn’t the most sterile thing I’ve ever seen! I guess it’s a good thing the alcohol content is high enough to kill the germs.
The rice wine starts in these large plastic bags fermenting in the sun. Fermentation used to happen in clay pots. The taste was better, but it would take quite a long time. The younger generation now uses thick plastic bags because it’s so much faster.
It was fascinating to watch them distill the alcohol in these large barrels, with only a small wood fire beneath.
We bought a small water bottle for 1000kyat ($1 CAD). It came out of a bag labelled “mixed cement”. They may not do a whole lot of recycling, but they’ve definitely perfected the art of reusing everything!
Black Eng (Wa Ann) Village
Pan Lea Village was the most fascinating for me. It’s home to one of the only Black Eng (Wa Ann) tribes in the area. I was surprised to see how different their clothing and language was from the Akha tribe just down the road.
(From left to right: the Pan Lea Village, our host’s house, Kacela in the kitchen)
We drank tea from the dirtiest glass I’ve ever used, and visited with Francis as well as a few of the local people. The girls had a LOT of questions about their teeth! This tribe gets their name from both the colour of their clothing, as well as the colour of their teeth. While many South East Asians chew betel nut, the Black Eng chew on chestnut bark mixed with limestone. This turns their teeth black, which is quite different from the reddish-brown acquired from chewing betel nut. They believe that humans should be different from animals, and since animals have white teeth, humans should have black teeth. It also has the side benefit of preventing tooth decay and bad breath.
We had the most fun giving out cookies here! The kids waited so patiently on the front porch of our host’s house. Francis dumped a pack of cookies on the table, and the kids came by one by one. Once they had their packs of cookies, they went running off to enjoy them.
It was so much fun to watch! Although Kacela had more fun playing with the cute little baby on the floor.
Trekking in Kengtung Myanmar Day 3
The plan for our third and final day of trekking in Kengtung was to visit a monastery, one village, and then head to the hot springs as a bit of a reward for the kids. When we arrived at the monastery the torrential downpour began. We waited out the rain inside the monastery. The kids played quietly on the floor, while the adults reflected on the differences between the Myanmar children and our own children. The monastery has a number of junior monks, and many of the younger ones lingered in the doorway watching us.
Once the rain quit, we made our way down the road to the Eng village and were welcomed into the house of the Shaman. In the past there have always been three Shaman in the village; the one in charge and two apprentices. However, due to the recent shift from traditional animism beliefs to the more prominent Buddhism, there are no apprentice Shaman in this village. It’s sad to think that this part of the culture is dying off, and that the current Shaman will be the last one.
Top: The Shaman (left) and his wife (right). Bottom: Kacela in the Shaman’s basket (left), the Shaman and his wife at the entrance to their house (right).
We had planned to return to the monastery for lunch, but before we were able to, a feast was placed in front of us. We enjoyed lunch sitting on the front porch looking out over the valley below. That may be the only time in my life I’ll be able to enjoy lunch at the house of the village Shaman!
After lunch, the kids had one more snuggle with a baby chick (their favourite part of our village visits!), and we were on our way.
Reflections on our visit to the Myanmar tribes around Kengtung
The village visits around Kengtung were incredible. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit the various villages and meet some of the people. Although they live a life very different from our own, they are happy. Many have avoided outside “help” as they prefer to live the way they have for generations. At the last village we visited there was a cement toilet that was built by an NGO a few years ago, in complete disrepair, because the villagers just didn’t care to use it. They were, however, happy to accept the 3-in-1 instant coffee we brought along with us!
There will likely be a time when these minority tribes no longer live a traditional life. Already, aspects of their culture are dying away as the entire world seems to “move forward”. It was good to see the younger generations living in much the same way as their parents and grandparents before them; wearing traditional dress and living in traditional houses. My hope is that they’ll be able to combine modern advances, such as medicine and electricity, with their culture, in a non-destructive way. Time will tell. I have no doubt that a decade from now they’ll be living a very different life. I’m glad we were able to visit now.
Where we stayed
Golden World Hotel
The rooms were basic but comfortable. It took forever for the shower to heat up, which was a bit annoying after a day in the rain! The rooms had air conditioning, which we used mainly to keep the humidity down. Breakfast was included in the room price. It was basic, but varied each morning. The last 2 mornings there were so many people at breakfast we ended up eating in the lobby. The location was great, within walking distance to the market and the lake. It was decent value for the price, and I’d happily stay here again if I ever get back to Kengtung.
Cost: $60 USD/night for a family room (2 queen beds)
Where we ate
This great little noodle soup shop was right next door to our hotel. It wasn’t quite Pho soup (Randy’s favourite), but it was still delicious. We ate here 2 nights in a row!!
Cost: 2000 kyat ($2 CAD) per bowl of soup
NCY Hot Pot
This was also very close to our hotel, and who doesn’t love hot pot!! The restaurant was fairly new, but they had the process so streamlined you’d never know it. The meal was delicious, with a large selection of meats and vegetables. There was an English menu, although the staff didn’t speak English. There was a young man at the table beside us that helped us order!
Cost: 11800 kyat ($11.80 CAD) for enough food to completely stuff our entire family
We ate lunch here the first day, and then returned for a good coffee and ice cream on our last night in town. It’s very Western, but the food was good. They even had pizza on the menu, and the coffee was the best I found in Myanmar.
Cost: 20000 kyat ($20.00 CAD) for a small lunch
What We Did
Trekking and Village Visits with Francis
This was our whole reason for coming to Kengtung, and it didn’t disappoint. The experience was even better than I imagined because of our amazing guide, Francis. His relationship with the villagers, and his understanding of their cultures and customs, made our experience so much richer than it otherwise might have been. If you’re thinking about trekking in Kengtung, definitely send him an email!
Cost: $40 USD/day for Francis, $60 US/day for the car (we split this between 2 families)
I’ve never visited a hot springs like this before, but it was pretty cool! There are private rooms of all different sizes, and you rent the room. There’s a hot and cold tap, so you can make the pool as hot as you want it. The hot water comes out of one tap directly from the springs, and the cold water comes from the nearby river. The river was quite muddy due to the massive rains, so our hot tub was brown. The kids didn’t seem to mind! I don’t think I’d go out of my way to come here, but it sure did feel nice after a few days of walking.
Cost: 4000 kyat ($4 CAD) for the large family room (it fit 8 of us!)
Loi Mei Town
The is such a cute little town up in the hills near Kengtung. It’s where the British used to have their summer homes, so there are a few cute colonial houses still in town. There’s not much here, but it’s worth a lunch stop and a short wander around. Many of the locals produce fruit liqueur, which warmed us up on a chilly day.
How We Got Around
We had a car and driver for all our trekking, and we booked this with Francis.
From the airport, we took a tuk tuk into town (3000 kyat, $3 CAD).
We went from Kengtung to Chiang Rai, Thailand on the bus. The bus from Kengtung to Tachialek was 20000 kyat ($20 CAD) per person, and the driver was nice enough to pick us all up at our hotel! Francis said he’d never had that happen before. We had to stop at the immigration office to get “checked out” of the area before we could board the bus.
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