With Kayah and Kayin states mostly off-limits to tourists, it’s the large Shan State (a good deal of which is itself closed) that epitomizes the appeal of the hilly east of the country. A day-trip on Inle Lake, visiting stilt villages and colourful markets, is top of the list, although for many travellers the trekking opportunities around Kalaw are equally appealing. Fewer visitors make it to Kengtung, but it has its own isolated charm and offers the chance to trek to villages where traditional animist beliefs still hold sway.
When it got too hot in the lowlands for the British during the colonial era, they retreated to hill stations like KALAW. Today the climate is still part of the appeal, even if it can get a bit chilly at night in winter, and the town is a base for some excellent treks to ethnic minority villages.
Other than the market, which is open every day but spills out into the streets when it’s Kalaw’s turn to host the rotating market, there isn’t a lot to do in the town itself besides visit its pagodas. These include the mirrored Aung Chan Tha Zedi in the centre and small Thein Taung Paya, uphill from the Union Highway and notable mainly for the views back towards the town.
Shan State markets
A number of markets in this region operate on a five-day cycle, with three or four markets taking place on each day of that cycle. With the possible exception of the very touristy Ywama “floating market”, they’re fascinating places – particularly early in the morning – where people from remote villages sell their produce or livestock and buy essential goods. Tour operators, guides and hotel staff should know the schedule; and it’s common to visit the relevant market during a boat tour.
There are many options for one- or two-day treks around Kalaw, following trails through the hills to villages inhabited by Palaung, Danu, Pa-O, Taung Yoe and other ethnic groups. Don’t expect untarnished nature – there has been significant deforestation in the area, and the routes mostly run past fields and plantations – but nonetheless, these hikes are a great way to get a glimpse of rural life.
The most popular longer trek is to Inle Lake, which normally takes three days, although it’s possible to shorten it to two (skipping some of the route by car) or lengthen it to four. There are many different routes and finishing points on the western side of the lake, including Khaung Dine and Indein. Usually one night is spent in a village home and another in a monastery.
The trails can get very muddy during the rainy season (June to October), while in peak season the overnight stops on the Kalaw-to-Inle trek can become pretty busy.
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.
While there are a few decent mid-range places in town, the pickings are pretty slim for travellers on a tight budget.
Foreign visitors are not allowed to stay over in the villages around Kengtung, and most of the day-hikes are at least an hour’s drive from town, which makes hiking here relatively expensive. Trips can be arranged direct with freelance guides or through accommodation; one of the cheaper options is with Harry’s Trekking House. The guide fee – typically $20 per day – is supposed to go straight to the guide, although many hotels and guesthouses quietly take a cut.
The most popular destination is the Pin Tauk area (transport from K35,000), as the three-hour walk passes through the villages of several different ethnic groups (Akha, Eng and Khun Shan, plus Silver Palaung if there’s time). Hikers may be dismayed to find, however, that most of their interaction with locals involves being offered handicrafts.
Other hikes are likely to be more rewarding, including to the Akha villages of Hokyin Hill (transport from K35,000), the former British hill station of Loimwe (transport from K50,000), and – furthest afield, near the Chinese border – the villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Saen (transport from K60,000), where Loi people live in longhouses.
The small town of PINDAYA is located in the heart of one of the most important agricultural regions in the country. The drive itself is a good reason to make the trip, as the patchwork of red soil, green crops and variously-hued flowers is simply stunning. It’s also oddly reminiscent of southern Europe, at least until you see a small Danu child riding on the back of a water buffalo. You’ll have to pay a $2 entry fee for the area as you get close to Pindaya.
Shwe Oo Min
The main attraction in the town is Shwe Oo Min, an atmospheric series of caves crammed full of Buddha statues – some date back centuries, but the collection is still expanding. The first section of the cave is packed with a vast number of almost identical golden images of the Buddha, while the further chambers – which are less cramped – exhibit more variety in materials and styles but still with the same subject.
It’s possible to continue north from here along the hillside via other shrines and a monastery.