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Kengtung, Shan State

Photos and description of the remote but fascinating town of Kengtung in eastern Shan State, Burma (Myanmar)

Kipling famously described Burma as being ‘quite unlike any land you know about’ and the remote Shan State outpost of Kengtung is certainly quite unlike any Burmese town you’d know about. You’ll rarely hear Burmese spoken; few locals wear longyis, you won’t see many girls sporting thanaka paste, there’s little Burmese food and the usually ubiquitous Aung San Suu Kyi posters are a rare sight. The Burmese are just one of the numerous minorities here though most that you’ll see will be clad in the grey of Burma’s finest or the green of the Tatmadaw rather than the beads, headdresses and embroidered jackets of the myriad local hill-tribe minorities. The food is Chinese, Thai or Shan, Thai baht are accepted everywhere, the lingua franca is Shan and the Shan National Party would clearly win any local by-election.

Kengtung - the lake and Wat Zom Kham
Kengtung – the lake and Wat Zom Kham

Indeed this small town lying in the very far southeastern corner of Shan Province is much more easily accessed from the Thai border at Mae Sai than it is from Mandalay or Rangoon. The long overland route from western Shan State’s Taungyii is still off-limits to regular visitors, (and we do not believe for a minute that the clowns at Top Gear managed to obtain special permission), so access on the Burmese side is currently by flight from Heho via Tachileik. From the Mae Sai/Tachileik border crossing Kengtung however is less than 3 hours on a decent, and highly scenic, road.

The road between Tachileik and Kengtung
The road between Tachileik and Kengtung

Kengtung or Chiang Tung is the local dialect, is, of course, smack bang in the centre of the infamous Golden Triangle region though these days, apart from the odd, half-hearted army patrol you may run into in the surrounding hills things seem pretty laid back and tranquil and today the town is a busy market centre for the surrounding villages and valleys with additional wealth seeping in from border trade with Thailand, nearby Laos plus the Chinese frontier which lies a short hop down the road.

Rush hour in downtown Kengtung
Rush hour in downtown Kengtung

Whilst the market may be bustling the rest of the town is very quiet and certainly hasn’t seen a lot of development and many of the buildings in the centre are still old wooden ones. Indeed the town, despite a population of some 60,000 doesn’t yet even have day-round electricity with the municipal generators only turned on from around 6.00 to 9.00 pm and hotels and larger restaurants relying on their own generators.

The market - liveliest spot in town
The market – liveliest spot in town

Tourism is just beginning to happen in Kengtung although surrounded by scenic hills and villages of Akha, Akhu, Enn and Lahu amongst other minority peoples, the potential is enormous.  At present overnight village, stays aren’t allowed so you’re limited to day treks in the immediate vicinity but many of these already make for fantastic days out. Add to that some decent remaining stands of forest and fast-flowing streams and cascades, opportunities for eco-tourism and trekking could easily compete with those of North Thai destinations such as Pai and Mae Hong Son or Burmese ones such as Kalaw and Hsipaw.

The surrounding scenery
The surrounding scenery

Since, as we mentioned, Kengtung is at least as easily reached from North Thailand, we’ve offered our short tours to the region either as an extension to our classic Burma tour; as an add on from Inle Lake – with a flight from Heho Airport, or departing from Chiang Mai, via Chiang Rai and either returning the same way or continuing with an onward domestic flight from Kengtung to Heho or even say Mandalay or Rangoon. A bit complicated? Well, it is somewhat remote but we reckon well worth the trip! (Check our Kengtung tour details here.)