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Travel & Leisure

Reinhard Hohler

A trip to Myanmar’s Eastern Shan State

Most foreign tourists visiting Mai Sai, in northern Thailand, are there for a quick visa run and a day’s shopping across the Friendship Bridge in Tachileik, Myanmar. The busy markets are full of merchandise from all over and bargains abound. Our trip was of a different sort.

Once inside Myanmar we paid our $10 entry fee and had a friendly travel agent take care of the mountain of paperwork and fees involved in bringing a car into the country. Our trip was to take us from Tachileik to Kyaing Tong and onwards to Mong La, on the Chinese frontier.

Once we were through immigration we exchanged money for Myanmar Kyats (pronounced “chats”) and Chinese Yuan we’d need along our route. Outside the city we made good time along Asia Highway 2.

The picturesque scenery was dotted with villages along the valleys and mountain passes. We had a nice lunch of local fare at Mae Yong just past the first of many military checkpoints.

Kyaing Tong is inhabited by ethnic tribes such as Wa, Shan, Akha and Lahu. It is full of temples, colonial buildings, lakes and is the most scenic town in this part of the country. Its name means, “Walled City of Tung”.

Approaching the city we pass the golf course on its outskirts and get a glimpse of what is to be our first stop. It is reminiscent of Chiang Mai some 50 years ago, shining with an unsullied majestic beauty.

We had left the Thai border some five and a half hours ago and were ready to experience the magic of a new and unknown place. Finding a hotel in the city center was easy and room rates were quite reasonable.

After experiencing a scenic sunset over Naung Tong Lake, we made our way to the market and enjoyed a lovely dinner before turning in for the evening.

The daily morning market is the heart and economic soul of the city. Early the next morning, we ventured out and into this multi-cultural mix of peoples. There were Tai Khoen, Indians of all types, Nepalese, Akha, Lahu, Wa, and silver-belted Palaung. Most commerce is completed in the early morning as many tribal people need to return to their villages shortly after midday. The variety of produce and goods available reminds us that Myanmar is a country blessed with natural resources that can turn its back on the rest of the world in its self-sufficiency.

The rest of the day kept us occupied visiting Wat Phra Sao Loang, home of the venerated Mahamyatmuni Buddha image. It is a replica of the famous Mahamuni Buddha of the Arakan Pagoda in Mandalay. The Kyaing Tong Buddha image was cast in Mandalay in 1921 of a mixture of copper, silver and gold and then transported with great difficulty to Khaing Tong. The chanting of the monks, the visage of the Buddha and the massive beauty of the temple created a doorway into the past, if only for an afternoon.

After a quiet and thoughtful night, we continued on our journey to Mong La. Leaving early in the morning, we headed north-east and on towards China. Along the way we passed through Tai Khoen and many Lahu mountain villages as well as numerous military checkpoints. This area is administered by ethnic groups of the Tai Lue and Akha, who were very helpful when we experienced some mechanical problems. Arriving in Mong La at ten thirty at night we were happy to find the Ba Lai hotel and get some rest. It had been an arduous journey and without the help of a tow truck we’d never have made it.

Mong La is in the centre of a special economic zone. Where there is an abundance of Chinese in an area of ethnic Tai Lue people. Everything seems possible and there are myriad new hotels, restaurants, shopping centres, internet cafes, casinos, and night clubs. We missed most of those, choosing instead to visit the Drugs & Gems museum. It is the Golden Triangle after all. All that afternoon we spent at the Dwaynagara Shwe Pagoda learning more about Burmese Buddhism. There are so many different variants on the Buddha’s message that it is nice to take the time and learn from different traditions, when opportunity presents itself. Also in the city are many temples ranging from catholic churches to mosques of Islam.

Early the next morning we made our way back, retracing our outbound journey. Where before there were strangers, now there were warm welcomes. Whereas before there was mystery, now there was knowledge of what to look forward to.

We were treated to a great parade for the day we spent in Kwaing Tong and upon arriving back in Thailand we got the same stamp that all the tourists got on their visa runs, but our memories of Myanmar were much different.

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