THE far-eastern Myanmar city of Kengtung was once a thriving commercial center on the southern Silk Route.
At the crossroads of trade routes to neighboring northern Thailand, Laos and China’s southern Yunnan, the prosperous principality once controlled a broad swath between the Salween and Mekong rivers – a mountainous territory larger than Austria or South Korea.
Fast-forward to present day, and the strategic Golden Triangle capital is one of the most remote and undeveloped parts in Myanmar.
Half a century of brutal military rule, decades of ethnic insurgency, and smuggler economies involving the trafficking of resources, people, drugs and endangered species have left the region depleted and impoverished.
However, it is this backwardness, combined with a lack of modern infrastructure which makes it appealing for intrepid travelers who want to get “off-the-beaten-track” and have more authentic experiences.
The area isn’t just 30 minutes out of kilter with every other Asian country; its antiquated vibe and a languid pace of life mean visitors should turn their clocks back 30 years.
Though officially open to tourists since 1993, last year, fewer than 5,000 foreigners ventured across the Friendship Bridge at the northern most point of Thailand Mae Sai.
Most of them were Thai day-trippers who only made it as far as the duty-free stores, golf courses, and casinos of the borderland town of Tachileik.
Following the 2015 elections which brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) into power, more tourists have been flying into the region as part of itineraries exploring the Golden Land with pre-approved e-visas ($US50) allowing 28 days of travel.
Travel from elsewhere in Myanmar can only be undertaken by an internal flight, as land transport across Shan state is currently restricted due to rebel activity.
Not so well known, mainly because the crackdown on repeat foreigner “visa runs”, is the ability to enter Kengtung overland from Thailand on a 14-day permit, issued by Myanmar officials in return for temporary passport surrender and 500 baht (US$10).
The permit limits travel to Tachileik and Kengtung, as the seedy China borderland area of Mong La – known for its casinos, prostitution and gun, drug and endangered species trade – is currently closed.
With a permit, groups must use a licensed guide – around US$40 a day – to deal with the checkpoints and smooth cross-cultural interactions in hidden hill-tribe villages.
There is one flight most days to Kengtung, but most make the three-and-a-half hour 153km journey along the Asian Highway AH2, including a mid-point rest stop where vendors sell live bamboo grubs and garlic-fried crickets.
The toll road was built by a Wa construction company involved in the teak, jade and drug trade – there’s still a US$2 million reward for the capture of its kingpin.
Kengtung city was founded 700 years ago as part of the Lanna kingdom which saw the establishment of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, and Yunnan’s Jinghong.
Those connections are reflected in the distinctly northern Thai architecture, with Kengtung’s majority Tai Khuen’s language mutually intelligible with dialects across the border.
But the frontier area isn’t just a Thai enclave stuck the wrong side of the border, as centuries of migration has given the district a diverse population.
Kengtung sprawls over undulating terrain with prominent landmarks dotting the ridge skyline. Like Chiang Mai, it was once a fortified walled city, though only one of the 12 gates remains.
Inside the old city are the tombs of the hereditary Tai Khuen princes of Kengtung. The 40th “lord of the sunset” conceded his semi-autonomous state to the British in 1890, making it one of the last territories to join the vast British Empire.
His successor returned from a regal visit to Delhi with the inspiration to build an Imperial Indian-style palace, the grand residence featuring minarets and intricately carved and lacquered teak interiors. However, despite local protest, the symbolic landmark was demolished by the army in 1991.
A new concrete government hotel opened in 1996 on the site, and is now run by a private company, with plans to renovate the Amazing Kengtong Resort to better reflect local Shan style.
The centrally located 108-room hotel is the best accommodation option available, with its poolside restaurant the only place showcasing Kengtung, Shan and Burmese food and serving Shan-plateau wines.
In front of the Amazing Keng Tong, occupying a traffic roundabout, the Maha Myat Muni pagoda houses a replica of the revered Mandalay statue, but the oldest gilded pagoda is found up narrow winding streets above the town.
Dating back to the 13th century, Wat Jom Kham (or Zom Kham) is said to enshrine six hairs of the Buddha left after he prophesied the city’s establishment.
On the opposite hillside, nearby the Roman Catholic cathedral, a 20-meter upright Buddha stands and points across the town, in a gesture regarded as authoritarian by some suspicious locals, who claim the military-built statue brings bad luck and ill-health.
Soon after it was erected in 1998, lightening struck off the pointing finger. The statue is lit up at night, while the town has rationed electricity or relies on back-up diesel generators.
In this small town where location is everything in the battle for hearts and minds, there is a 66 metre-high 250 year old tree on a nearby knoll One Tree Hill. Another popular place for dusk is around the centerpiece lake Naung Tong, where a cluster of BBQ joints and Chinese eateries serve Myanmar Beer.
The only place with any hustle or bustle is the daily Central Market, selling fresh and dried produce from the fertile hinterland, and attracting colorfully-attired hill-tribe folk who come to trade their wares.
Among the stalls selling black sticky rice, frogs for eating, and woven baskets, there are teashops offering spicy Shan noodle soup. The market specialty is pork ball noodle soup, made by tattooed Shan men who pound the pork with muscular arms.
Exploring the relatively undeveloped hill tribe areas is often the highlight for visitors to Kengtung, with day trips options to a dozen different areas.
It is not possible to stay overnight in villages, and any exploration is best done with a local guide and transport (around US$100 a day), as the most rewarding experiences come after driving for an hour or so out of town to trailheads for hikes to hill-tribe settlements.
The most accessible – and most visited area – is around Pin Tauk, with Lahu and Akha villages lower down, and a primitive Enn village higher up. The Enn are known as the ‘black teeth tribe’ as they chew betel nut, and darken their gums with charcoal.
While most villagers are happy to be photographed, expect to be accosted by persistent sellers of bracelets and fabrics.
Fewer tourists embark on the steeper and longer uphill hikes to waterfalls, tea plantations, remote hilltop monasteries, wooden longhouses, and headhunter villages.
A popular day trip heads up to the minor hill station of Loi Mwe, where an old British colonial house, an Italian Catholic church, and pretty lake sit at 1,600 meters above sea level in the fresh cool air.
Kengtung is one of the last frontiers for travel in the Mekong region, and its combination of slow-paced life and colorful ethnic diversity means now is a good time to venture across the border to the land that time forgot.