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Burma: Kengtung tribal villages

February 9th, 2009 · No Comments

The next part of our trip was just as remote as Mrauk U and the Chin region — but significantly more strenuous. We flew to the far East of the country near the border with China, Laos, and Thailand, part of the Golden Triangle. Kengtung is well known for the diversity of people that live in surrounding villages, all accessible by day hike. So we set off on another adventure — captivated and warmed by the people we met.


For photos, click here:


After 5 hours on a small plane, we finally arrived in Kengtung, the capital of the Eastern Shan state. The only problem with this place is getting here! Our little plane stopped in three other cities before it finally landed (late) in Kengtung. Luckily, our hotel had send a guide to pick us up from the airport, so we already felt well taken care of and ready to explore this remote part of Burma that borders China, Laos, and Thailand. (And is part of the famous Golden Triangle…the opium trade.)

Our late arrival didn’t stop us from getting in some sightseeing on our first day. After getting settled at the hotel, our guide took us to his house, where his wife and two motorcycles were waiting for us. And so we set off, the four of us on motorbikes, on a 45 minute ride to the Palaung village. The Paulung people are well known for the many silver belts they wear around their waist and chest. Some of the women had so many on, that it almost made a layer of armor. The houses were an interesting arrangement, with the livestock all living below the families. (Literally pigs, chicken, and waterbuffalo were running around under their huts.) Dan and I were surprised at how (relatively) well off the people in the village seemed. The huts all had electricity — and some of the people had motorbikes. When Dan asked our guide about the source of their income, he responded: “They grow things in the jungle.”

The next day, we went to the morning market to collect supplies for the day. Our guide and his wife convinced us to try a sampling of the local cuisine: we bought bamboo shoots, steamed chicken in a banana leaf, and sticky rice for our lunch. We also purchased some shampoo and crackers to share with the local people when we visited their village. I felt conflicted about bringing gifts of any sort (why is it OK to beg for shampoo, but not money?). While shampoo and crackers seemed like a good choice, I worried about the chemicals in the shampoo polluting their water and the sweet crackers harming the children’s teeth. There never seems to be a simple solution, even when one is trying to do something good.

We set off on bikes again, this time to the remote Lahu Shi village in the mountains. It was a long, hot, exhausting hike (3 hours!!) — but it was completely worth it when we arrived to find the village celebrating the full moon festival. The men, women, and children were all dressed in traditional attire of white shirts with blue pants or skirts. The children and women had colorful beaded necklaces. All the boys were playing a top spinning game, where the goal is to hit your opponents’ top with your own. (I love how boys can make even top spinning competitive!) A small group of women were playing drums and smashing symbols, while other women danced around a flagpole. After much coercion, I finally joined in (and Dan played the role of photographer to excuse him from participating…)

Check out this video of the Lahu Shi performing their ceremonial dance for the Full Moon Festival:

After a while, we were invited into the local “monastery” (read: hut where the one monk lives). It was packed full of people eager to hear the monk speak. He had come to the village only three months earlier, before then the people practiced a purely animist religion. Now, they were learning how to incorporate buddhist beliefs with their own. The monk started shaking uncontrollably and then left the hut to take a walk. It seemed clear to Dan and me that he was very sick, though no one else wanted to admit that. When the monk returned, he talked to the people, and then one of the women started vibrating and giggling. Our guide explained that the “spirit” had “come into her” — this was a very special thing that could happen to only 10 people in the whole village. Shortly thereafter another woman started shaking and smiling; it seemed the “spirit” had also visited her. Dan and I didn’t know quite what to say to this, but our guide’s wife was visibly uncomfortable (she had never seen this before) and asked him if we could go. We thanked the villagers for our tea and set off to enjoy our “picnic” lunch on the hiking trail back down to the valley.

This day ended with the strangest hot springs experience I’ve had to date. I’ve been to hot springs in many places, washed myself on a little stool with my mom in Takayama, Japan –and frolicked in the warm water in Honduras in my bathing suit. But I’ve never been someplace with private rooms for one to enjoy the hot springs. Basically, Dan and I took a bath in a “double room” with sulfury water. However, given that our hotel seemed always out of hot water, this was a nice way to relax our sore muscles and get clean at the same time.

The next day we set out for some different hilltribe villages. After over an hour on the motorbikes, we finally arrived at the Akha village north of Kengtung. The Akha women are especially famous for their beautiful silver headdresses. Each one has an elaborate engraved silver plate on the back, with many silver beads and old Indian silver rupees dangling from the sides. The Akha women are also known for their weaving … and they know it. We were surprised how quickly they set up “shop” when we arrived, hanging purses, belts, and hats for sale over the fence posts.

We left the Akha women and hiked for a short while up the mountain to an Eng village. The Eng also are expert weavers and tried to convince us to buy many things from them. Our guide knows the local people well, so we were immediately invited up to sit with the chief of the village and take some tea with him. As we sat and overlooked the valley, at least fifteen Eng women and children crammed into the sitting place to join us. As with the day before, all were really happy to be getting shampoo and crackers!

We also visited another village which was large enough to have a school. In addition to watching the children practice their English, we got another musical performance! Check out this video:

Our last day in Kengtung was spent exploring the town itself. We started by visiting the famous buffalo market, where they sell (you guessed it!) water buffalo. Very strangely, it seems the buffalo trade operates more like a stock market, with speculators hoarding buffalo when they think the prices will rise and trying to sell to the hot Thai and Chinese markets. Unfortunately, buffalo prices came down recently from $1200 to only $800-900 a buffalo, so there wasn’t much action. Dan still picked out the buffalo he wanted though….he keeps telling me that he ordered it and it will be waiting for us in San Francisco.

We also visited the big market and saw people from many different tribes buying and selling goods. Among the stranger items for sale were bamboo worms, birds (to free for good merit), gunpowder, and buffalo fat (when you fry it, it puffs up like a cheeto…for those of you who have spent time in Mexico, think Chicharon).

Lastly, our guide took us to the most important of the many monasteries in town, Wat Jong Kam. It was breathtaking, with many different images of the buddha seated together in the main hall. The highlight was after our visit though, when we stopped to visit our guide’s mother who lived nearby. In all my travels, I’ve never felt so much like I have really gotten to know the local people as I have here in Burma. We have been literally invited into their homes, met their families, and heard their personal stories (or at least what they feel comfortable talking about openly). It has been wonderful.

Once again, this part of our trip was organized by Good News Travels. Highly recommended.
William Myatwunna
Good News Travels

Tags: Asia · Burma · Southeast Asia

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