The gem in the Golden Triangle

Thailand August 13, 2014 01:00

By Nirmal Ghosh
The Straits Time

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Despite a couple of modern hotels, Kengtung in Shan State still lives in the past

In this frontier land in Myanmar, blue-green mountains surround you, wreathed in tendrils of mist and capped with shifting clouds.
Water in the fields reflects the sky as young, green rice stalks push their way up from the fertile reddish soil. Big-eyed water buffaloes trundle home. Old stone wells dot the valley; and up in the hills, old monasteries and churches stand amid forests of pine.
In the tea shops, the sweet Indian-style tea is the same colour as the earth.
Deep in the hills are tribal villages where people still live off the land that gives them everything they need.
I met a shaman, of the animist Aeng tribe, who doubles as a blacksmith. He sat patiently twirling an ancient air pump, heating a fire in which he was fashioning the blade of a shovel. It would take him all day; time here means little in a place long isolated and only recently opened up for visitors.
Even with the opening, visitors must go through several checks. I began my journey to Kengtung – spelt Kyaing Tong in the Myanmar language and pronounced Cheng Tung or Chaing Tong – at the Thai-Myanmar border, crossing from Mae Sai to Tachileik.
Across the border, I change from the left to the right side of the road, and I turn my watch 30 minutes. Twenty years ago, I would most probably have been offered heroin or marijuana as I stepped across.
But while some opium is still being cultivated in remote areas, those days are over – and this time I was offered Viagra in a faded little box.
A cup of sweet tea and an hour later, I am on a bus to Kengtung.
This is the Golden Triangle, once the notorious centre of the world’s heroin supply. A road trip through this countryside explains why it has always been so difficult to enforce anything here: Shan is the largest state in Myanmar - about twice the size of Sri Lanka - and the land here is range upon range of rolling green hills and vast valleys, with only a few paved roads.
The bus had once been air-conditioned, but now passengers have to make do with open windows and a table fan.
It moves at a stately trundle while the passengers are treated to a Chinese kung-fu film, which screens three times during the five hours it takes to cover the 114km.
Kengtung is at the eastern corner of Shan state, so far from central Myanmar that most essential supplies come from China or Thailand.
Morning in Kengtung begins with the cries of occasional street vendors, and the best place to have breakfast is a sidewalk tea or noodle stall – or the sprawling central market which is open every day except on full-moon days from about 7 to noon.
The market is a dense hive of activity, offering a welter of freshly cooked and raw food, vegetables, grains, meat, fish, fruit, dry spices, pots and pans, hardware, sewing and tailoring services and money changers.
None of it is set up for tourists; unlike in some parts of northern Thailand, where tribal people dress up in their traditional costumes for tourists, here they dress as they do normally.
The market offers a diversity of faces and costumes of the Akha, Aeng, Lahu, Akhu and Palaung people, to name just a few.
Most still live subsistence lives, but their cultures offer lessons in sustainable living that are lost when they move to cities.
I visited one Aeng village an hour’s drive and then an hour’s trek into the hills outside Kengtung, in the Pin Tauk area.
The village has an elaborate split-bamboo water-channelling system that runs downhill and distributes water neatly to every house around the clock. Huts are made of bamboo, palm and thatch, and there is no electricity.
The tribe members have only recently become used to seeing foreigners; a hand-written note on a piece of paper outside the shaman’s hut admonishes tourists not to bang the huge drum hanging inside.
The city of Kengtung was long the crossroads on the trade route from Chiang Mai in Thailand to southern China. Political control has changed several times; China invaded in 1765 only to be pushed back by the Myanmar people. Thailand, then called Siam, first invaded the area in 1804.
In the colonial period, Kengtung was one of the furthest eastern outposts of the British empire in India and Myanmar; about a century ago, the British had a garrison there comprising Gurkhas, Sikhs and Punjabi Mussalmans.
Kengtung remains relatively underdeveloped. A handful of small hotels offer reasonable value as well as Wi-Fi – though the Internet in Myanmar is still notoriously sporadic.
The ashes of some members of the Shan kings, or Sawbwa, are interred in a small cemetery a short walk from a stone gate, the last of 12 that once encircled the Walled City of Tung, as the name of the city implies.
Nearby are a couple of big old mansion once owned by descendants of the Shan royals but now in a state of disrepair. The Shan royal family’s palace was destroyed by Myanmar’s army in 1991; on the site sits the Kyaing Tong new hotel, a sprawling mid-1996 era property.
One morning, I drive up to the Ko Yin Lay monastery, arriving just as the novice monks were arranging lunch. A small novice, perhaps around age seven or eight, can barely lift the large mallet to strike the enormous, heavy bell-shaped gong to announce the meal.
I sat in the temple with the Sayadaw, or Abbot, who is in his late 40s. A smiling, open man, whom thousands  come to see and continue to every year, offers me tea. As we speak I search for some profound insight from him.
And when it comes, it’s surprisingly simple. “Everybody is welcome here,” he says with a smile. “It doesn’t matter what religion or belief. All are welcome.”