The Walled City of Tung

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An ethnic Akha family being brought to a polling station in rural Kyaing Tong to cast their votes in the 2015 general election. (Ben Dunant)

Now the road from Taunggyi is open to foreign travelers once again, there is no better time to visit the town of Kyaing Tong—the once-mighty ‘Walled City of Tung.’

Kyaing Tong—a town battered by history but nonetheless charming—is located in the far east of Shan State, between the Chinese border and the Golden Triangle where Myanmar touches Thailand and Laos along the Mekong.

The principal appeal of visiting Kyaing Tong is to go trekking in the hills and to meet the locals. (Ben Dunant)

Thick with mountainous jungle, the region was described as a “geographical nowhere” by Sir George Scott, the man tasked with mapping the easternmost land border of British India in the late 19th Century. Since then it has always had a reputation for mystery and wild things, fueled by a centuries-old drug trade that once financed the ornate palaces and pagodas that pepper the area.

Such architecture is still on display in Kyaing Tong, a cultural fusion of Chinese and Thai, with a smattering of Burmese to boot. Nestled in a valley amid undulating hills, the town is quiet and lazy, described by one lyrical visitor as a place where a poet-recluse might choose to “live and dream, and die.”

At the centre of the town once stood an extravagant palace, built by Sao Kawng Kiao Intaleng, the 40th ‘Sky Lord’ Prince of Kyaing Tong. The palace was demolished by the Burmese military in 1991, and so disappeared a cherished piece of Tai history. Wandering about its streets and sitting in it teashops today, travelers may likely see well-fingered pictures of the old palace defiantly pinned up on walls.

Where the palace once stood—where once the ‘lords of the sunset’ resided—the military government built the spiritlessly-named ‘Kyaing Tong New Hotel’, now the Amazing Kengtung Resort.

The hotel has views out onto the Naung Ton Lake, a serene place for an evening amble. One can sit down in the lake-side restaurants for supper at dusk as the town settles into stillness for night, save for the occasional rumble of a teenager’s motorbike.  

‘Collection of Races’

As charming as the town is, the principal appeal of visiting Kyaing Tong is to go trekking in the hills and meet the varied array of ethnic groups. Although in each village you will walk past wallowing buffalo and pigs rutting in the earth, and in each you will find wrinkled and smoking grandparents keeping just half an eye open over errant children, the costumes and culture of each is markedly different.

As Sir Scott wrote, “There is in this particular region a collection of races so diverse in feature, language and customs, as cannot, perhaps, be paralleled in any other part of the world.”

In the space of one morning walking you will likely hear a half a dozen different dialects languages, and can attempt to grapple with the outré mythologies and histories that accompany each.  

A vegetable seller in Kyaing Tong market. (Sundara Grandes viajes via Flickr)

Three of the most prolific ethnic races are those of the Lahu, the Akha, and the Eng. The Lahu can be seen in the village of Pin Tauk, just one community of the 2 million strong population spreading over both Myanmar and China. In the villages of Hokyin you will find the Akha, recognizable due to their heavy head-dresses, and not far from here the Eng, whose women paint their teeth black, and whose children leap from tree to bush, trusty slingshot wedged firmly into the waist of their scraggly trousers.

If time permits, historically-minded travellers may wish to drive up to the town of Loimwe on the ‘Hill of Mists.’ In winter a thick fog cuts off the town from the valley below until midday, making this ‘outpost of outposts,’ once the eastern-most hill station of the British Empire, a melancholy spot.

Much of the colonial architecture has been dismantled brick by brick and most of the youth of Loimwe have left home for opportunities in Kyaing Tong or Taunggyi or to try their luck as croupiers in the casinos of Mong La. When Sampan last visited, we found it an intriguing albeit desolate place, our movements traced by their raggedy children, watching us with large eyes.

With the Taunggyi road open once more, Loimwe need not remain in this forlorn state. Indeed, there is hope that the wider brain-drain of Kyaing Tong and its hills will subside as the town reaps the rewards of responsible tourism to the region—following in the vein of Shan towns to the north and south such as Hsipaw and Kalaw—and perhaps the walled City of Tung will return once more to its former grandeur.

Sampan Travel is a boutique and green tour operator based in Yangon, curating tailor-made journeys around Myanmar.

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