KENG TUNG, MYANMAR, 3 February 2017: Keng Tung could be a million miles away. It’s not. In fact’ it’s relatively close to my hometown province of Chiang Rai; 163 km beyond the province’s border with neighbouring Myanmar on a twisting road through hilly terrain.
Once you cross the Mae Sai –Tachilek border checkpoint, 68 km north of Chiang Rai town, it’s just a four-hour bus drive to Keng Tung.
But it feels a long way perhaps because it takes all day to get there and Keng Tung is an understatement as far as tourism goes when you arrive.
It’s probably easier to say what Keng Tung is missing in order to grasp its potential tourism appeal. There are no McDonalds, Starbucks, fancy boutique hotels, spas, pubs, nightclubs, fine-dining restaurants or wine bars.
There are few tourists, no traffic jams and hardly a tour bus to be seen. Electricity falters on a daily basis hence the generators parked outside restaurants ready to kick-in to save the contents of the freezers.
There’s not much ancient heritage either in the town’s tiny crowded lanes. It’s not Myanmar’s answer to Luang Prabang for sure, yet it is tempting to conclude that with its picturesque Naung Tung Lake, its glittering temples and cool January climate that Keng Tung is worthy of a visit.
Now sitting lakeside admiring the sunset, a fiery red scarf that dances along the rim of a mountain range, I recognise the merits of chilling out in the capital of Golden Triangle. It’s tourism understated.
I should have visited this quiet region of eastern Myanmar that borders China much earlier, perhaps decades earlier when the trip was far more arduous.
I joined eight other travel writers and journalists for the PATA Chiang Rai Chapter media trip that had the lofty goal of promoting “links” between North Thailand and Myanmar.
Myanmar’s Amazing Holidays Hotels & Resorts hosted the trip to promote its 2015 acquisition of a three-star hotel in Keng Tung that it is just months away from entering the ICU for a major renovation.
Staff will be told to take a four-month break for the first phase of a three-year project that will cost USD8 to 12 million. The remake will be staggered over three low seasons, May to August, with operations resuscitated during the cool season months October to March.
Keng Tung stands in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains that rise almost 2,000 metres high in some places.
The Shan State capital and its picturesque lake occupy land at an altitude of 850 metres. That makes it decidedly chilly in January and February and hot as frying pan’s contents in April to June.
I wondered what ever happened to the surveyors who pioneered this snake-like line of tarmac that climbs ridges and follows the course of streams and rivers from one valley to the next. For their endeavours it became the major trade conduit to and from China that lies almost due east and Thailand to the south.
Keng Tung prided itself on being the Capital of the Golden Triangle. For centuries that was so, but today it nothing more than an impasse, a drive to a cul-de-sac. The border with China was slammed shut late last year.
It was tough going for our small bus that rattled over the ruts and potholes, hardly managing to average 40 kph. We were amazed that the road had two tollgates where officials collected fees to keep the road in good order.
One of the journalists had travelled this road before so “please no complaints,” he told us. In 1998, it took eight hours to complete the trip and if you failed to make it to the last checkpoint by 1800 you were in deep trouble.
The barrier closed and you fell foul of the rule that forbids tourists from staying overnight anywhere between Tachilek and Keng Tung.
Today, the final checkpoint remains open until 2200. We pass the raised bamboo pole at 1900 and far below us in Keng Tung’s valley, the lights of the town flicker inviting us to dash down the mountain side in time for dinner.
So that’s the first reason to visit Keng Tung. It’s a remarkably entertaining journey that will make you feel like an explorer, well almost. There’s a 20-minute flight that hops once a day between Tachilek and Keng Tung and back, perhaps an option for the return trip?
This was not a hardship posting. We were guests of the Amazing Kengtung Resort the highest star-rated property in town. It has three twinkle stars to its name and 108 rooms in a four-floor 1990s concrete hotel. From the outside it is nothing to write home about.
But we are about to discover, that its kitchen rustles up the best Shan State food imaginable, a nightly feast on a variety of dishes, conjured up by the chef and his team humbly advertised as the “Set Menu”.
Foodie tourists would love the adventure of dining three nights in a row leaving the task at hand to the chef, who with great pride introduces them to classic Shan dishes. Quite amazing and definitely the trip’s highlight.
Keng Tung has other appealing tourism assets. Its vast maze-like market where you lose your way easily without the assistance of a guide.
It’s a retro-visit to the kind of markets that have largely disappeared in Thailand since the arrival of mega stores. I am not a market lover, but this one was fascinating as long as you stayed clear of the huddle of stalls selling fresh meats. You have heard the mega store’s boast that it carries everything except a second-hand coffin. The Keng Tung market, overflowing with necessities and novelties, is in that genre spreading over the centre of the inner town like a massive web of commerce.
Keng Tung’s big tree, towering to the heavens on a hilly knoll overlooking the town, is massive and impressive. It appears to touch the clouds. Our guide, Francis, points out the monster has been growing for centuries and he is sure it’s the tallest in Asia. Oh, the disappointment that Google delivers when we can instantly go online and discover in seconds there is a stouter and most likely taller version on the tiny island of Phangan in South Thailand.
“It looks like the tallest in Asia,” we tell Francis , who by now is moving us on to the tallest standing Buddha (Yat Taw Mu Bouddha) that points west from its lakeside elevation to demonstrate Buddhism covers the nation.
They arrive daily at our hotel in tour buses approximately 25 to 30 people in a group. The first priority is to make a bee-line to shops in the market that sell traditional Shan dress.
These gaily coloured costumes, down to gaudy hats and handbags, have a purpose for the pilgrims. They dress up for the following day’s outing to one of the town’s ornate temple that they have supported with donations and yes they are the only ones wearing traditional Shan dress. This ensures temple elders can easily identify their benefactors during the auspicious temple ceremony.
The two most popular temples for Thai pilgrims are Wat Zom Kham and Wat Pha Jao Lung.
I estimated the costumes cost THB5,000 per person for a single day at the temple. They stay overnight and return by road to Thailand, some having travelled from as far away as Bangkok and beyond. It’s lifeline for Keng Tung’s tourism a steady flow of visitors during the cool season months.
This is all a far cry from the city’s colourful trading history and link to China. Today, there are no Chinese tourists travelling the 89 km road to Keng Tung from the border town of Mong La. A political, or commercial spat, at the border slammed the bridge door shut last year. Minus the bridge and right of way to Yunnan and Laos, Keng Tung sits in sleepy hollow a lost link for the Mekong Region traveller.
Mong La, once a bustling casino town is now almost deserted. Its Friendship Bridge is boarded up a stark testament to the fragile nature of Mekong cooperation. Security fears are cited for the no-go status at the bridge, but it is also about curbing the excesses of gambling that turned Mong La into a sleazy outpost of gambling, crime and prostitution. Until the situation is resolved Keng Tung has lost its gateway status.
Myanmar-based Amazing Holidays Hotels and Resorts hosted the media fam trip, organised by the PATA Chiang Rai Chapter chairman, Jaffee Yee, to promote cross border tourism between far north Thailand and Myanmar. Photos courtesy of Jaffee Yee.