KENGTUNG HILLTRIBE TREKKING
As a traveler, there is an undeniable rush the first time you discover an unknown destination. When you gaze upon a photograph and cannot take your eyes away. A city so charming or a landscape so beautiful you cannot believe it has been absent from your life for all these years. It is a calling that won’t stop ringing in your ears until you answer it. A new goal, a new finish line. Somewhere you never even knew existed, but are immediately infatuated with.
I was sitting in a small guesthouse in Chiang Mai when I came across a photo of an Akha tribeswoman in the northern Shan State of Myanmar. Her bold characteristics captured beautifully with black teeth proudly on display. I was intrigued, I was excited. Who is this woman? Where does she come from? What is the history behind her culture?
Suddenly, I found myself rapidly searching for her tribes geographical location and the authenticity of their lifestyle. Being in Thailand, I had struggled with the idea of visiting what many have labelled a “human zoo”. My findings confirmed what I had hoped for. The tribal villages of Kengtung remain today as they have for centuries, with little impact from modern society and associated technologies. So, how do I get there and most importantly…am I welcome?
Tourist information is rapidly changing in Myanmar and any advice given may be outdated the second it is published. You are best to visit the Myanmar Visa website for up to date info.
At the time of my travel I was advised to obtain an eVisa and fly into either Yangon or Mandalay, with an onward connection to Kengtung. Fortunately, when I showed up to the Myanmar Embassy in Chiang Mai I was informed the Mae Sai / Tachileik land border crossing in northern Thailand had opened 3 weeks prior to my arrival. Lucky me, right? I filled out the forms, paid my fee and picked up my passport three days later to see a freshly pressed Myanmar Visa!
From Chiang Mai I caught a bus to Chiang Rai for the night. First thing in the morning I was in a crammed minivan from the main bus terminal to Mae Sai. Then, I’m suddenly kicked out of the van as we approach the border crossing and I am left on my own. Now, you may hear lots about getting fresh, crisp $100USD notes (printed after 2006) before entering Myanmar. I honestly never noticed too much of a fuss about any currency, but don’t stress too much there are banks available before the border crossing with acceptable notes.
I headed in the direction of the cars and was pulled into a small room by security to look at my paperwork and fill out some additional forms. Ten minutes later, after sitting in complete silence while the border patrol conversed, I was handed my passport and given a stern head nod. Welcome to Myanmar!
I was immediately swarmed by Tuk Tuk drivers of all ages, fighting for my business. Like any similar situation, you can only go with your gut. I selected my driver and told him I was heading to the bus station to carry on to Kengtung. Everyone around was in agreement, there is no bus to Kengtung. “You must fly.”. Though the information I read said there was a bus leaving at 12:30 (in 45 minutes) I knew how misinformed a lot of the information was online. I was contemplating what to do, thinking about when the next flight might be, when a man stepped through the crowd saying “I’ll take you, let’s go”. Perhaps, everyone wanted to take me to the airport to get a higher fare for the ride. Perhaps they honestly didn’t know there was a bus to Kengtung. I was just glad to arrive at the bus station and secure my ticket. Don’t be surprised if they take your passport at the bus station, they take copies of all transportation throughout the country. From here, I was off on a ten hour journey to Kengtung aboard the Shwe Myo Taw Express.
The township is small with limited selection for entertainment, food or shopping. I stayed in the Sam Ywet hotel, which was very basic but one of the nicest accommodations in town. I hired a translator / guide before my arrival who I found by looking through TripAdvisor forums. You can expect to pay approximately $25USD per day.
Every morning we got started at around 7:30 to head to the local market and get food for the day and gifts for the villagers we would be visiting. The market is an experience in itself, a vast array of local delicacies and fruits to try. The spicy sausage and sticky rice kept my energy up nicely. You can also change your USD bills to local currency in the market and get whatever additional supplies you may need.
The stares I got throughout town were new to me. It seemed a lot of people were very surprised by my presence. Some embraced me kindly, some gave bad looks and others pointed and giggled. I was followed around stores by children trying to get a better look, and I was continuously asked to take pictures with teenagers who were thrilled when I agreed. I felt like a celebrity, I felt like an outcast. I felt embraced and unwelcome at the same time. It was different.
The countryside of northern Myanmar is beautiful. I observed every blade of grass blowing in the wind, every ounce of smoke from freshly blazed farmers fields. Riding on the back of a motorbike to the starting point of the trek I couldn’t help but smile. Two weeks ago I didn’t know this place existed. Today, I was racing towards the finish line. I was here, in the hills of the Shan State, about to visit the tribes I had just learnt about a week prior.
After a seven kilometre trek through the stunning hillside we arrived at the Pan Lea village, home of the Ann tribe. I was welcomed by the eldest woman of the tribe, excited and eager to have me visit. Of course, she smiled and proudly displayed her black teeth. An aesthetic achieved at an early age with charcoal and is a sign of beauty. It was impossible not to smile back.
I think this village was one of my favourites. Partly because it was my first interactions with these amazing people, partly because the children were so beautiful and friendly. I was informed I was the first foreign visitor to the village in over two months and they were extremely happy to have me. After playing with the children and handing out gifts for everyone as a thank you the chief welcomed me into his home for my first taste of Rice Whiskey. A few cups later and I realized just how strong it was.
We spoke of their customs and traditional way of life. How they depend on weather for a good crop to survive. How they no longer have much conflict with militia in the area who would roam into the village and strip them of their necessities. How they feed on dog when they require extra energy for working in the fields. Basically, many fascinating extremities the minorities in the region have endured over the years, many of which westerners will never fully understand.
Over the hills, we visited a neighbouring Ann village. They split some time ago over a dispute about religion and decided to live everyday life apart from each other. However, they remain on good terms and join together for special occasions, holidays and celebrations. It was here I met a chief who elegantly blew smoke on repeat and taught me how to master his ridiculously strong homemade slingshot.
The mountainous Pan Pack village of the Lahu Shi tribe is absolutely the hardest to reach. A fairly steep three hour climb is necessary to arrive at the community, nestled in the tree lined 1600m high region. It happened to be a holiday on the morning I arrived and the entire village was taking a break from working in the rice fields. I was welcomed to join the gentleman in the Chief’s house. There we sat, gathered around a crackling fire in the centre of the wooden house as freshly prepared tea circled the room and spicy wild boar was prepared for me. We exchanged gifts.
Children of all ages rushed through the doorway to catch a glimpse of their guest and receive a sweet. Visitors are far and few between in this village, westerners even more so. I was informed their is a good chance I am the first white man some of these children have ever seen. I didn’t know how to feel about it, I was just happy to be welcomed into their village…on a holiday.
Through my translator I spoke with the group of men about their customs and how they differ from the way I was raised. They ask many questions about how to separate from a partner if you no longer enjoy their company in my culture. I explain to them the ideology of divorce. They all laugh and say they like the idea of “divorce” as they begin to joke back and fourth in their own language. I assumed separation was not an option to them. They explained the history of their tribe and how they were known for being Tiger hunters. Nowadays, Tiger’s are no longer found in the area and they hunt wild boar and other game.
Times are changing in their village. They had a poor harvest this year, but no longer fear starvation. Some of the younger teenagers have acquired motorbikes and are sent into town to purchase rice. Many of the adolescents commute to work in town and return to the village to contribute their wages for the welfare of the community. A new tin roof costs approximately $80USD and everyone pitches towards the next milestone. Here, the chief allocates all earnings as he sees fit and fair. There is no thievery in the village as any culprit will be banned along with his family. The Lahu Shi are a community.
The Wan Sai village of the Ann tribe is situated in a lush jungle landscape surrounded by small ponds and rolling hills. It is here, where I met one of the most fascinating women in all of my travels. I was sitting on a porch waiting for the villagers to get out of their morning mass when she hopped up the stairs. Before I could even say “hello” she was sparking up a pipe and shoving it into my mouth with an infectious giggle. Unaware of what I was smoking (though conscious we were in an infamous Opium region) I took light drags and didn’t inhale. That only led to the ash dying out and the woman constantly relighting it and giving it back to me. I pulled a bit harder.
She was quick, agile and limber for being “87…she thinks”. I knew I had to take this woman’s portrait so I asked politely. She couldn’t have been more excited, hopping up against the wall. She continued to toke from her pipe, blowing the smoke out of the side of her mouth. I was looking through the camera and couldn’t help but feel this was a woman straight off of the cover of a Nat Geo magazine.
Carrying on to a nearby Akhu village I met another wonderful woman. A kind, warm-hearted soul who deeply expressed how she wish she spoke and understood more English so that we could communicate. She brought me into her home for a hearty home cooked meal of local veggies, dried wild boar, spicy soup, freshly roasted peanuts and tea.
I offered the woman a kilogram of Rambutan (my newly discovered favourite fruit) and she began to laugh. She expressed how she woke up and told her husband that she dreamt of being surrounded by many delicious fruits that aren’t available to them. She chuckled more, and said I was the one she dreamt of. The one who brought her all the delicious treats she had seen in her sleep.
Even though we didn’t speak the same language I felt a connection with this woman. I felt her warmth and her generous hospitality. She had very little to give but offered me everything. I saw her sense of humour and her desire to communicate with me. I saw regret in her eyes when she expressed how she never learnt another language. I cherish the memory and fact that my ONLY souvenir from two months in Asia was handmade by this woman. A beautiful, hand-made linen headdress she graciously put on for me. She explained If I walked around the village wearing it all the girls would want to marry me – but, they are not allowed to marry outside of their own tribe.
The Ho Kyin villages is home to the Akha tribe who still wear traditional head dresses (as seen on the cover photo of this article). This is a fairly large community with many families and modern modes of transportation found throughout. They still strongly believe in the spirits and numerous religious displays can be seen throughout the village as offerings. Out of respect I chose not to photograph them.
I sat inside a traditional home for over an hour conversing with a local gentleman through my translator. We opened peanuts continuously until my hands hurt. He shared stories of his childhood, growing up in a rural village and how their culture has changed over time. He explained how believing in the spirits meant having twins was evil, and that family would be banished from the village. Same goes for homosexuals and those with mental disabilities. Nowadays, however, things have began to change, they are now accepting of everyone. The village has a new hospital and the future is looking bright for them.
Down the road a group of children holler in my direction and wave me over to see what they were up to. From what I gathered, the children play a game where they place rocks in a line using spit to hold their place. They then stand 20 feet back and hop towards the rocks on one foot while the other foot holds another stone. They then flick the stone to knock over as many rocks as they can, similar to bowling. It was hilarious watching them get pushy with each other boasting who was better in an obvious ploy to impress me.
It’s getting harder and harder to get off the beaten path on this planet. To find new corners of this world that haven’t been exploited purely for the almighty tourist dollar. The opportunities to visit authentic tribal villages and cultural communities are quickly fading with western influence. I saw it here in Kengtung. Things are changing.
Many advancements are made for the benefit of these people. Healthcare is becoming more accessible and available throughout. Nearly every woman I spoke with had lost a child, or two or three. It seemed to be part of their way of life, as if they had accepted they must have multiple children to combat the increased mortality rate.
I saw with my own eyes the last generations to partake in their cultural heritage. Younger generations of the Ann tribe are not blackening their teeth, they are not wearing traditional clothing. They have been exposed to another way of life in the city. They want perfume, iPhones and money. They want the life they never knew they could have.
I wanted to indulge in a culture that was true to it’s past. To visit people who still share a sense of community and embrace their heritage. I got what I was looking for. The hill tribes of northern Myanmar took me the furthest out of my element I think I have ever been, and it felt incredible. There is no doubt in my mind these tribes will become part of the tourism industry as Myanmar rises out of civil unrest and opens its doors to more foreign visitors. I know I wasn’t the first person to visit these beautiful people, but I hope I showed them foreigners can be respectful.
I WAS A VISITOR, A STRANGER WELCOMED INTO THEIR HOMES WITH NO EXPECTATIONS OF PAYMENT.
Looking back, choosing to pursue that finish line was one of the best decisions I made. Pictures are only worth so many words, words can only explain so much, but my memories are endless.
Thank you to all the beautiful men, women and children that greeted me with open arms. That smiled upon my arrival and waved goodbye upon my departure. That filled my glass when it was half full and insisted I had the last bite of the meal. Your kindness will be remembered, your conversations will be cherished and I know I owe some of you a printed portrait…when I see you next.
Thinking about visiting Myanmar to visit the hill tribes or been already, let’s talk about it in the comments!