Its prominent position within the Golden Triangle – the opium-growing zone covering parts of Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand – meant that for many years Kengtung (pronounced Cheng-tung, and also known as Kyaing Tong) was off-limits to tourists. These days, however, the main rebel groups have signed ceasefires with the government and visitors are allowed in with some restrictions: the only way to get to Kengtung from within Myanmar is by flying, although you can visit overland from Thailand. This tends to mean that travellers on tight budgets leave it out of their itineraries.
It’s certainly worth the visit if you can afford it; Kengtung itself is one of the most appealing cities in the country, with a definite Thai feel: monks wear saffron robes, Thai baht are accepted in some hotels and you may hear yourself being called falang instead of “foreigner”. Most people, though, visit for the excellent hiking possible in the surrounding area.
What to see and do
Set across hills and with a lake close to its heart, Kengtung is a pleasurable place simply to wander around. The Thai influence is clear in both the architecture and the names of temples such as Wat Jong Kam and Wat In, both of which have clusters of Buddha statues in their main pagodas.
There’s also a long history of Christian missionary activity in the area; a large complex in the west of town includes the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and St Louis’ Seminary. The giant Buddha nearby, known as Ya Taw Mu, has his back turned away from it.