Sunday, January 29, 2017

Return to Kengtung—Luxury-Style

                                                  by Jim Goodman

Naungtong Lake, 1998
       Kengtung, in northeast Myanmar, is one of the least visited cities in the country.  Tourists generally stick to the main sites in central Myanmar.  They don’t have the time for a place so far from the popular destinations.  In fact, most travelers who venture as far as Kengtung do so from Mae Sai, Thailand, where they can obtain a special permit, in lieu of a Myanmar visa, valid for Kengtung. 
       Since the bulk of its visitors come in from Thailand and not other parts of Myanmar, tourism promotion concentrates on publicity in Thailand.  To that end, in January this year the city’s largest luxury hotel, the Amazing Kengtung Resort, sponsored a group of ten writers based in Thailand for a stay at the hotel and a tour of the sights.  I was fortunate to be included and looked forward both to seeing a city again that I was already fond of and discovering what a luxury tour is like.
one of Kengtung's many temples
       I had been there twice in 1998, when doing research for a book on the Akha ethnic minority.  I hired a motorcycle driver to take me to Akha and Palong villages in the vicinity, but also spent some time exploring the city, which I found very pleasant.  Kengtung dates its founding to 1267, when King Mengrai of the newly established state of Lanna, its capital in Chiang Rai northern Thailand, drove out the Wa inhabitants and established a city.  He left his younger brother to rule as king and ever since then Kengtung has been regarded in Thailand as Chiang Mai’s Younger Brother, even though Chiang Mai was not founded until 1292.  Same dynasty, though, so technically it should be Lanna’s Younger Brother.
the central market in 1998
       Anyway, the main implication is the close cultural connections between the two.  The inhabitants of Kengtung are mostly Tai Khoen, closely related to the Tai Yuan of northern Thailand and the Tai Lu of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.  Their dialects are mutually intelligible.  They use the same alphabet as old Lanna and share the same monastic traditions.
       Kengtung, therefore, resembled cities in northern Thailand, but as they existed twenty or thirty years ago.  The temples and chedis featured similar architecture.  The residential houses were stilted, as in northern Thailand, and the women dressed in old-fashioned blouses and sarongs.  The morning market revealed the ethnic diversity of the area, as shoppers from several minorities showed up, both men and women dressed in their ethnic clothing—Palong, Lahu, Lisu, Wa and five sub-groups of Akha.
Palong woman and her silver belts
       The city lies on gently sloping hills, so that when walking around it’s never tiring and there’s always a good view, since chedis and temples proliferate in every direction.  The most attractive spot is Naungtong Lake, with chedis, temples and other fine buildings lining its shores.  Back in 1998, electricity ran only two hours a night, from 6 to 8, and nightlife was severely restricted.  At Nauntong Lake, however, there was a floating disco, with its own generator.
       This was the weirdest disco scene imaginable.   A dozen or more pretty girls in white sweaters and red miniskirts worked as hostesses.  To dance with them the boys bought tickets.  One ticket paid for one session, which lasted about a minute and a half.  Then loud whistles interrupted the music, signaling it was time to turn over another ticket to continue dancing.  Thanks to its generator, the disco stayed open a few hours longer than other public places, its raucous music and incessant whistles audible for blocks away.
Buddhist ritual, Wat Jong Kham
       Nine years later I made a third trip to the city.  Fortunately, a new road connected Tachilek with Kengtung, paved all the way, and it only took three and a half hours by bus.  In 1998 the road was only paved in the few towns along the way, full of dirt ruts in between and there were no buses.  I rode in an old station wagon and it took eight hours to cover the 165 kilometers.  A few months later I only decided to make a second trip because I could get a round-trip airplane ticket.
       The city was slightly bigger, but not any busier.  Now it had lighting throughout the evenings, even some dim public streetlights.  The disco was gone, though, and the only available nightlife was sitting with friends in a coffee shop or lakeside bar.  The morning market was as active as ever, but scarcely any women from the hills dressed in traditional clothes.  A few temples had been recently renovated and formerly white chedis were now completely gilded.
Loi woman, central market
Akha woman, Wanpin village
      The most prominent new structure in town since my 1998 visits was the large standing Buddha on a hill across the lake, pointing to the center of the city and its most prominent chedi.  It’s modeled on the original on Mandalay Hill and is a peculiarly Burmese type of Buddha.  The local Tai Khoen never had that kind of image, but now it’s the biggest in town.
planting rice outside Kengtung
       In a way, the Buddha also points to the Amazing Kengtung Resort.  It stands on what used to be the site of the local ruler’s palace, built in 1905 in Imperial Indian style.  He abdicated in 1959 and left for another residence.  The Ne Win government ended Kengtung’s autonomy and the palace began to decay.  Rather than renovate it, the government demolished it in 1992 and authorized the construction of the hotel, in line with its new policy to promote tourism.
       For this trip, my fourth to Kengtung, the hotel sent a comfortable van down to Tachilek for us and one of the staff to take care of the paperwork at the border and at the checkpoints along the way.  We all got spacious, well provided rooms with views of the pool and garden and excellent service.  Our multi-course dinners were fabulous, with mutton, prawns, beef, pork, fish head soup, chicken and local specialties like a kind of rice pancake.  We also dined as sumptuously on our afternoon meals our two days on the road.  Well, on a luxury tour you’re supposed to eat well.
Ann woman, Ban Lea village
the jewelry of an Ann woman
       But what was going to be the Kengtung they were going to show us for two days?  Since the capacious central market is most active in the morning, we naturally started there.  Our guide was quite informative, especially since only two of us had ever been to Kengtung.  He pointed out Loi women standing in the lanes waiting for work as porters, a few Akha women in their ethnic attire, odd foods like buffalo skin, bamboo grubs and other edible insects, and a girl inserting hot coals into an old-fashioned, non-electric iron for pressing clothes.
three generations, Ban Lea village
       We next drove to Naungtong Lake for a view of the prettiest part of the city.  More buildings had gone up since my last look, but all of them attractive.  It was a sunny day and great photo-op, though actually a better view could be had from the balcony at the end of the upper floor hallway of our hotel.
       After a brief look at an abandoned colonial-era residence, we made stops at two temples:  Wat Jong Kham and Wat In.  The compound of the former includes the biggest chedi in the city, while the interior walls of the viharn, the main assembly hall, feature a fascinating array of murals.  In golden yellow on maroon backgrounds, they depict various vignettes of everyday life along with Buddhist motifs and mythology.  Wat In is notable for its Buddha sculptures, elegant chedi and unusual brick book depository.
cherry tree blossoming near Loimwe
       Kengtung has many attractive temples with pretty much the same features.  These two were certainly representative and well worth a look.  So far the tour was going fine.  But then we spent the afternoon in the countryside, our ultimate destination being two ethnic minority villages in the hills an hour so away.  Getting there was pleasant, passing villages and their temples with the characteristic tiered steeples and people planting rice.
       Then we climbed slightly above the plain and arrived at Wanpin Akha village.  I had been in many Akha villages already, in four different countries, on countless excursions in the course of my work and my research, but never with ten people along.  I was wearing an Akha jacket, made by the same sub-group we were visiting, and could converse in their language. 
       That made my encounter different from that of the others in the group.  It meant that I could at least deflect the conversation away from what they were trying to sell me.  The others could not.  We had stopped next to a shop full of handicrafts for sale and a couple stalls just outside marketing the same.  Taking a couple of our group down a village path, hoping to show them the traditional Akha gate and swing, I learned that the village didn’t have either.  They were Christian.  Gave it all up.
Kengtung family on a picnic at Loimwe Lake
       We didn’t stay long, and next headed up the mountain to Pan  Lea, a village of the Ann people, a sub-group of the Wa, an animist group famous for their black teeth.  It’s the result of chewing betel, believed to strengthen the teeth.  They’re not the only people to do so.  We would see Akha, Lahu and Wa with black teeth as well, but they’re the only folks advertised by the tour agencies as the ‘black teeth tribe.’
       The village lies on a rather steep slope, full of traditional stilted houses, with bamboo aqueducts funneling water through the settled areas.  Most everyone dressed in their traditional clothing, mainly black garments.  Older women wore turbans with cowry shells attached and big silver earplugs festooned with colored braided threads.
Italian-built Catholic Church at Loimwe
       Villagers saw us coming up the road and so when we arrived we were all but surrounded by smiling women, some with babies on their backs, offering us various handicrafts—scarves, jewelry, bags, purses and other trinkets, some made by the Akha down the mountain.  Our guide gave a short introduction to the Ann, mostly about the black teeth and a fertility festival in which two men, one dressed as a woman, simulate the sexual act.
       Interesting people, certainly, but our experience was limited to a balcony of a house, with the eager sellers following us, and a look inside.  It’s not that the women were particularly pushy.  They were polite and they did get a few sales from our group.  They were just particularly numerous.  It was not, and could never be, an authentic cultural encounter.
       We left for a stopover at a plains village producing rice spirits for the entire region, enjoyed a few samples, and then returned to Kengtung.  Our destination the next day was Loimwe, a hill station 30 km east, at 1600 meters altitude, 700 meters higher than Kengtung, set up in colonial days as a British retreat.  We had glorious weather, good long-range views of Kengtung and its mountainous setting and the treat of wild cherry trees in full blossom.
fruit wines for sale at Loimwe
       Loimwe’s main attraction is its artificial lake and on weekends Kengtung residents flock here for picnics and visits to colonial houses and the Italian-built Catholic Church.  The area abounds in fruit orchards and shops in the town beside the lake sell wines made from cherry, peach, crabapple and other fruits.  Menus can be a little exotic, too, and our meal here included fried shredded venison.
       The mountain people around Loimwe, mostly Lahu and Wa, are all Christian.  Missionaries were encouraged in colonial days.  The American Baptist Paul Lewis set up the Lahu Theological Seminary near Loimwe in the late 1940s and it's still going strong.  Christian villages aren’t so interesting for potential tourists, though.  The people are polite, but don’t dress in their ethnic clothing because the missionaries persuaded them all that traditional stuff came from the Devil and had to stop.
village temple outside Kengtung
       Besides the Ann village, several animist settlements of Akha, Palong, Lisu and others lie within reach of Kengtung.  Unfortunately, government policy has never permitted foreigners to stay overnight outside the city.  Trekking can never offer much insight into mountain culture if trekkers have to leave the village before dark.  They miss the dinner arrangements, who cooks what, how the family eats, who goes to sleep first and awakes first and what is the first task of the day.  That’s the core of the traditional lifestyle and it won’t be revealed on a brief visit.
       It’s not the fault of the Akha and Ann villagers that their encounter with us was so distressingly commercial.  Regulations determined the circumstances and they were no more allowed a normal experience with us than we were with them.  The government cites security concerns, but the last lingering embers of the Shan insurgency burn a long distance from the Kengtung area. 
       Kengtung is a nice place to visit for its temples, scenery, lake and ponds, interesting walks, sparse traffic, special cuisine and friendly people.  Yet it could offer so much more, specifically authentic encounters with traditional ethnic minorities, the full spectrum cultural experience, just like its Elder Brother Chiang Mai.  But the first requirement is a new law on trekking.
view of Naungtong Lake from the balcony of Amazing Kengtung Resort
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