Kyaing Tong in eastern Shan State is one of the most picturesque towns in all of Myanmar, and a day or two can easily be spent walking around exploring the pagodas, markets and side streets, and sampling the local food. Most visitors, however, will eventually want to get out of town and experience the region's biggest tourist draw: the ethnic villages nestled in the mountains that surround Kyaing Tong in all directions.
Trekking can be done in the Kyaing Tong region year-round, with each season having its advantages and disadvantages. The most popular time is winter (November- March), when temperatures are low and precipitation is virtually nonexistent. This combination makes for pleasant walking, but this is also the height of the tourist season, so accommodation and transport might be difficult to find without booking well ahead.
The summer season (April-May) is likewise characterized by very low precipitation, but temperatures can get quite high in the afternoon. Sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats and plenty of drinking water are necessities for summer trekking. On the plus side, this is the slowest time of the year for tourism, so hotels are easy to find and rates are sometimes substantially lower than during the high season. Visitors are also likely to have the trails to themselves, which adds to the feeling of adventure and discovery.
Some guides in Kyaing Tong insist that monsoon (June-October) is the best time for trekking, especially during the last month or so of the season when the rain is tapering off and the vegetation is at its most lush. The rice terraces are especially beautiful, taking on the appearance of emerald steps cut into the mountainsides. The air is pleasantly cool during monsoon, but the frequent rainfall means, of course, that there's a good chance of getting drenched. One big advantage is that the locals tend to stay closer to home during monsoon, so there's greater opportunity to meet large numbers of people in each village.
Whatever the season, there are many attractions to trekking in eastern Shan State, including the spectacular mountain landscapes. Some slopes have been formed into terraces for growing rainy-season rice crops, while other mountainsides are still covered with mixed deciduous forestland interspersed with groves of bamboo that rustle in the wind. Climb high enough — beyond 1000 meters above sea level - and whispering pine trees start making an appearance as well. And as the altitude increases, the vistas become more and more amazing.
The regions biggest lure is the huge diversity of cultures, ethnicities and religions
The lowland areas around Kyaing Tong are mostly settled by the Khun Shan ethnic group, the vast majority of whom are Buddhists. There are small numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Christians in town as well.
But the greatest variety lies in the villages located in the mountains surrounding town, which are home to ethnic Akha, Lahu, Eng, Wa, Palaung and other groups. The predominant religions in these areas are Buddhism, Christianity and animism, or spirit worship. Kyaing Tong's Central Market is a great place to see this cultural diversity, as people from the mountain villages often come into town - many wearing their traditional ethnic costumes - to buy and sell produce and other goods.
Even better than visiting the market is travelling out to the mountains and meeting the villagers on their home turf, and this is where trekking comes in. Excursions can be arranged at hotels and guest houses in Kyaing Tong that cater to tourists. Overnight treks are not currently allowed in eastern Shan State, so adventurers can head out of town in a different direction each day, returning in the evening to enjoy the comforts of hotel accommodation before going out again the next day.
A day of trekking will start with the guide and driver picking you up at your hotel,
usually around 7:30-8:00am, in a car, van or SUV, depending on the number of people in your group. The first stop is usually the Central Market, to pick up any food and bottled water that might be needed for the day, as well as small, useful gifts for the villagers, such as soap, shampoo or candles. Then it's time to head out of town and into the hills for a day of adventure.
Most trekking areas can be reached in less than 90 minutes' driving time. One of the more popular destinations is the village of Pintauk, about 45 minutes north of Kyaing Tong. Heading out of town, youll almost immediately hit a wide, smooth dirt road that takes you across the flatlands, past vast paddy fields and through a couple of Khun Shan villages. After about 30 minutes, you'll turn left (west) onto a narrower, bumpier dirt road and immediately start gaining elevation as you pass through bamboo forests and cultivated hillsides.
You'll stop in or near Pintauk, an ethnic Lahu village whose residents are mostly Christian. From here you'll embark on a walking circuit that might range in distance from 8-10 kilometers, depending on the exact starting point. The walk can be done in either direction, but in either case involves a series a steep hill climbs and descents. The scenery is, of course, amazing: rice terraces, cultivated fields surrounded by bamboo fencing, trickling creeks (even in dry season), and water buffalo munching on grass or wallowing in mud to keep cool.
There are several villages along the way, including one settled by Christian Akha and another that is home to Eng people, about 80 percent of whom are animist and the rest Buddhist. The Akha are famous for their striking costumes, especially the hefty headdresses that are worn by women and decorated with beads, silver studs, silver balls and old coins dating back to the British colonial period. The hats worn by married women are even heavier, as they are affixed with a trapezoidal metal plate at the back.
The highlight of this trek is the Eng village. Aside from special occasions such as festivals, many residents of eastern Shan State's mountain areas eschew traditional dress in favour of modern styles (Manchester United jerseys, for example, are not an uncommon sight). But most of the Eng people continue to wear their traditional black tunics and longyis, decorated with colourful highlights, on a daily basis. The Eng are commonly referred to by locals as the "black-teeth people" because of their habit of chewing a type of regionally grown betel nut that, over many years of use, coats their teeth with an ebony lacquer.
The Eng religion is basecsimple wooden gate hung with symbols meant to protect the residents from harmful external elements. One of the most important residents in the village is the shaman, who presides over seasonal rituals for blessing the harvest and the hunt. It's possible for visitors to get permission to enter his home, which is decorated with animals skulls and a huge ritual drum: Taking photographs is permitted, but touching anything will incur a cash fine payable to the shaman.
The trip to the Pintauk area should take about seven or eight hours, from the time you are picked up at your hotel to the moment you are dropped off again. Then you can enjoy a shower, a meal at Golden Banyan restaurant or one of the barbecue shops along Naung Tung Lake, and a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed. You'll be well-rested and ready to wake up early the next morning to further explore the wonders of eastern Shan States scenic mountain villages.