Journey north through the Golden Triangle to Mynamar’s Shan State
Take the road north of Chiang Rai, going toward Myanmar’s pristine Eastern Shan State, and you’ll find yourself in a different world. With its rolling hills and refreshingly undeveloped lands.
The Shan region has a past as fascinating as its present day inhabitants. Agriculture dominates this vivid landscape. Humble huts dwell amongst banana groves, while glistening rice paddies, teak plantations, and rubber trees populate the undulating hills. The air is crisp and clean here, and temperatures lower due to the increased altitude. With bright blue skies and radiant green fields, even the colours seem more vivid, creating the sense that this place is truly a world away.
By continuing along the endlessly entrancing mountain slopes that eventually grow into foothills of Yunnan, in China (further north), intrepid travelers will finally arrive in the city of Kengtung. Proudly known as the “Capital of the Golden Triangle”—the geographical region which encompasses sections of Northern Thailand, Eastern Myanmar, and Western Laos—Kengtung was once a hotbed for narcotics and arms trading, and to this day its surrounding borders are still infamous for every variety of trafficked goods. In some hotel bathrooms there are still signs explaining that narcotics and arms deals are not allowed on the premises.
Before the early 21st century, a majority of the world’s opium was grown in this region. Yet contrary to popular belief, opium production was introduced to the Golden Triangle only in the late 19th century, mostly by refugees from southern China—people we know today as the “Hill Tribes.”
These ethnically distinct cultures, which include the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, and Wa, brought with them opium cultivation as their most valuable cash crop, as the plant could thrive in this fertile mountain climate. Opium production flourished throughout the 20th century, encouraged by the various political factions that influenced this border-bound region. Today, however, betel nut is the drug of choice, giving many of these people their iconic blackened teeth, while coffee and tea crops serve as the people’s main source of income.
There are 135 different ethnic groups currently living in Myanmar—35 of which call this region home—with the Shan being the majority. However, after the military’s government takeover in the late 1950’s, speaking these traditional languages was banned throughout the country, as Burmese became the official language. Yet despite the colonial efforts of both the British and Yangon, a strong sense of cultural identity and self-determination is palpable here. Walk into any market, and you’re guaranteed to hear a diverse smattering of languages, the least of which being English and Burmese.
To get to this mountain ‘Princedom’ I set out towards the Mae Sai border crossing, about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai. As borders go, it was much calmer then I expected, with surprisingly few machine-gun-wielding police.
Just over the border, you’ll find yourself in Tachilek, a bustling town with a few hotels and restaurants, such as the clean and contemporary Bai Tong Hotel, which offers a noticeably delicious Thai-style menu (a meal here is a wise move for anyone planning to continue on another three hours to Kengtung).
Twenty years ago, it took one week to get from Tachilek to Kengtung, and ten days in the rainy season. Poor road conditions and antique cars, not to mention a despotic government that had closed its doors, meant that for most of the 20th century traveling in the Eastern Shan State was not the easiest of endeavours. Today, however, Kengtung feels like a sleepy town just waking up to the outside world.
Situated in a beautiful mountain valley, and centered around the picturesque Nongtong Lake, there are only a small handful of landmarks which define this quaint city. Several ancient chedis (stupas) and monasteries inhabit the hills a short walk from the town center, and a massive, gleaming standing Buddha—a recent addition—gazes benevolently down upon the city.
At the site of the former regional prince’s palace, the Amazing Kengtung Resort is situated in the heart of the city, and is perhaps the best bet for travelers wishing to stay in style. While Myanmar is indeed opening up to the wider world, the government still has many policies in place which limit travelers, such as requiring foreigners to stay at government-approved establishments. The ‘Amazing Hotels’ group is one of these chains, and has locations all across the country. The resort is built around a spacious garden and swimming pool, and offers clean, comfortable rooms, most of which include a balcony with a view of either the garden and pool, or of the city and the illuminated standing Buddha across the valley. Internet is slow all over Myanmar, but it’s usually accessible here.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Amazing Kengtung Resort was the consistently delicious food, which was served as a pre-fixe dinner every evening. It always included a sampling of Burmese and Shan dishes, most memorably a variety of meat and seafood curries, as well as a savoury Shan-style rice cake. The restaurant here truly stands on its own, and it’s well worth spending the US$15 for dinner.
This region also exhibits a distinct religious and cultural heritage, quite different from the rest of Myanmar, which conquered the Lanna Kingdom in 1558. In fact, Buddhism here is more heavily influenced by Tibetan traditions, rather than the Theravada style practiced in the rest of the country. A former stronghold of the Lanna Kingdom, Kengtung was founded by the son of the famous King Mengrai, yet it has a vastly different flavour than its former sister cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Going way back it was simply a village occupied by the Shan people, and before them, the Wa tribe (who still live in the surrounding hills).
The cultural heart of Kengtung—like anywhere still remote enough to avoid the amoeba-like encroachment of shopping malls—lives in the town market. I spent a morning wandering around this labyrinth of ramshackle stalls, absorbing the friendly buzz of local life as smoke billowed from countless cook fires blazing beneath cauldrons of Shan-style noodle soup. Ahka women from the surrounding hills, still wearing their traditional beaded and silver headdresses, bring in their crops to sell and trade for other staples they can carry back up to their villages. Vendors selling everything from pottery and clothing, to herbs and gunpowder, line the narrow market walkways. Emanating from every corner is the smell of curing fish, dried meats, chili peppers, and onions. It’s a totally different sensory experience then your usual Thai market.
After an hour or so I ducked into an open-air teahouse offering two kinds of tea—one a sweet, creamy black, reminiscent of ‘Thai tea’, and the second an unsweetened brew of locally grown and picked leaves which tasted fresher and cleaner. A nearby wood-fired oven cranked out freshly baked flat bread (similar to Indian naan), and a delicious, savoury onion-fava bean dip.
Considering it takes a three-hour drive up the mountains to arrive at Kengtung, it’s no surprise that it still largely exists in isolation, especially compared to the well-trodden streets of the cities and towns of nearby Thailand. With less than 5,000 tourists visiting here per year, this genuine sense of remoteness— the internet came here less than 10 years ago—is what gives the Eastern Shan State its charm. In short, this is not your average backpacker destination.
With the goal of promoting tourism between Northern Thailand and Shan State in Myanmar, this trip was organized by Jaffee Yee, Chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Chiang Rai chapter, and fully hosted by Amazing Hotels Group, Myanmar. To enquire about travel with PATA, please call 081 922 9063.
Know Before You Go
Option 1: Foreigners are allowed to enter the Shan State for 13 days from Mae Sai without a prearranged visa. You need to secure an official guide, as well as official hotel-sponsored transport, all of which can be arranged through your hotel, or at the border. You also must leave your passport at the border, and collect it upon your return—perhaps not the most stress-free choice, but it works.
Option 2: Apply online in advance for an eVisa, which costs US$50 for most foreigners, and allows you to travel anywhere in the country, and leave from any border. With an eVisa, it’s possible to take one of the two buses from Tachilek to Kengtung, which run at 8:30am and 11:30am. Be aware that motorbikes require special paperwork, camping throughout Myanmar is still a major no-go, and staying in villages is off-limits, as the government restricts travelers to using only approved hotels.
Travelling Further Afield
Among other things, the Golden Triangle is known for its diversity of indigenous Asian cultures, most of which are referred to as Hill Tribes. Originating from regions of Southern China and Tibet, many of these tribes have migrated across multiple borders, fleeing wars, political changes, or simply being pushed off their land by an unsympathetic majority. Their history remains largely unacknowledged by the international community, making them, essentially, refugees.
A few hours drive outside Kengtung, through endless fields and up some seriously rugged roads, I went to visit several of these indigenous villages to experience first hand what their life is like. The road we were on quickly transformed into jagged and bumpy dirt tracks as we cut across rice paddies, veering directly away from the main road. Crashing through a grove of bamboo, I began to spot hand-made carts, donkeys, and idle children watching our vehicle—telltale signs that we had entered village territory.
The Akha and Lisu live in more lowland villages, like the one we were driving through, and have started offering their vibrant textiles and weavings to the few travellers who venture here. Smiling Akha women joke with me in their own language while I look at their impressive trinkets and weavings. We don’t share a word in common, yet smile and laugh with each other nonetheless.
Hill tribe peoples are traditionally Animist, a nature-based religion that believes heavily in spirits, offerings, ceremonies, and other shamanic practices common to many indigenous cultures across the world. Yet Christian missionaries concentrated their efforts among many of these impoverished peoples, and it’s not uncommon to hear distant hymns resonating out of small village churches. Most of them are now some denomination of Christianity, though their Animist worldview is never far away. In fact, my guide, Francis Sai Twe—who is able to speak English, Burmese, Akha, Lahu, and Shan—was raised in a Catholic seminary.
Further up, on top of the steep, mountain slopes more befitting the Quechua of Peru, live the Eng tribe. A subgroup of the highly independent Wa, the Eng are most notable for their tradition of headhunting, which they practiced as recently as the 1960s. Neither Buddhist nor Christian, they are one of the few hill tribes to still fully practice their traditional Animist religion.
With their black, betel nut-stained teeth, and embroidered black robes, the Eng are perhaps the most traditional, and therefore most impoverished hill tribes in this region (also being relegated to the most difficult plots of land). It’s a small wonder that their cousins, the Wa, are still engaged in an armed struggle near the Chinese border—a region the government still considers a restricted “black zone.”
While I visited these remote villages in the back of a truck, Francis recommended arranging a trek. “You really get the experience the culture and the nature in a much more authentic way,” he pointed out. However, the government prohibits foreigners from staying overnight in villages, which means you have to drive all the way back to Kengtung at the end of each day. Yet for those who like being on their feet and exploring the natural world, a trek in these pristine mountains is an experience of a lifetime.
One of the many highlights that cannot be ignored about Myanmar is its delicious and unique food. Its unofficial “national dish”, a fermented tealeaf salad known locally as Lap Pet Toke, is a savoury blast of garlicky-salty tang that is rapidly gaining devotees around the world (myself included). In addition, varieties of cured meats and local sausages are common, along with regional curries and soups. Shan-style rice cakes are also a regional staple, along with garlic-infused bean and vegetable dishes that are resemble some uncanny cross between Indian and Italian cuisine.
With a heavy reliance on onions, garlic, cumin, and chili, Burmese food satisfies a part of me that the spicy-sweet flavours of Thai cooking miss altogether. After spending less a week exploring only a small slice of this diverse country, Burmese cuisine has quickly become something I crave—especially that tealeaf salad, a Shan regional specialty.
Fought over by warring kingdoms and political factions, populated by countless ethnicities, and the former world capitol of opium production, the Eastern Shan state is perhaps one of the most diverse areas in all of Southeast Asia. Yet the riches of the Golden Triangle are no longer held in fields of poppies or in the hands of regional warlords turned narcotics traders. The true richness of this place lives in its fertile hills and unspoiled valleys, with its friendly people and its vivid tapestry of cultures. Myanmar, and especially the Eastern Shan State, is no stranger to conflicts. Yet somehow this place still exists in relative harmony, finding balance amidst the political chaos of its many divides, both political and cultural.
“Pu crit mu nat,” Francis tells me, is how the people here view themselves. “Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Animist—all people together. That is how we are.”
Words by Simon Yugler
Photos by Sam Kai Kwong