The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis visits Kyaingtong (Keng Tung) Burma

Written By: herbrunbridge - Oct• 18•10

Akha woman near Kyaing Tong, Burma

Welcome to Kyaingtong (Keng Tung), a rambling hillside city in the Shan State, close to numerous tribal villages.

 It’s the center of the Khün tribal culture, filled with nice examples of colonial architecture, and has only been open to tourism since 1993.  The Khün people, whose traditional dress consists of horizontally-striped longhis and jackets with cross-ties on the side, are believed to have arrived from Thailand’s Chiang Mai area in the 13th century ACE.  Although relatively few Westerners reach Kyaingtong, many Thais from Chiang Mai visit to see remnants of the original Lanna culture, which  many feel the Khün represent. 

In Kyaingtong, you’ll want to take one or multi-day treks to outlying Akha, Ann, Lahu, Palau, Shan, and Wa villages.   Accompanied by a guide who speaks the language and knows the people, you’ll meet tribal elders, drink a glass of their local brew mixed with honey, and get to see first hand how the people live today.  Your guide will also ask you to pay for candies for children, and medicines that he’ll give to the headman (your cost for this will be under $10). 

You may also want to visit the site of Dr. Columbo’s Leper Colony, still active more than 50 years after its founding in the early 1950s. View the spectacular 1959 film The Happy City for moreon this fascinating colony. 

Kyaingtong loses its power during most of the day, a cold beer is hard to find, and nightlife is pretty much restricted to reading in bed until the lights go off. Getting to the city usually requires flying in, as the roads leading to it are often closed due to military action.  Kyaingtong is not inundated with tourists, and you’ll be rewarded by a personal travel experience that your friends lying by the pool in Rangoon will not believe. 


  • Treks to hillside villages are easy to arrange at your hotel, and can be done in one day, or multi-day trips, the latter of which can involve staying in a village overnight if you choose to do so.  This is the best way to see traditional village life, and in a single day’s walk you’ll end up seeing villages of several different tribal groups.  On these walks, you could see Akha, Ann, Lahu, Palau, Shan, and Wa villages, all in the same day.  Typically, each guide will carry several itineraries, and you may choose the one you prefer.  Price is generally $20 per day, and includes a jeep ride to the point at which you begin your hill walk.   

Treks are, as a rule, not arduous, and a steady pair of hiking shoes, should allow you to walk in comfort.  Your guide will tell you what to bring, and he’ll ask you to make a small donation so he can bring some medicines for the village headmen, and candy for the children.  Your guide will have established friendships with these people, your visit will be welcomed; the villagers are polite and will ask nothing of you.  

Our recommendation?  Take several one-days treks so you can return to your hotel for a beer and a shower each night.  On the other hand, veteran trekkers will want to stay in the villages for one or more nights, to sample village cuisine and hospitality.  We further recommendation is that you synch up with a guide as soon as you check in at your hotel, to help ensure that they’re not all booked for the following day.  All-in-all, tribal trekking in Burma is one of its greatest travel experiences. 

  • There are several interesting wats (temples) in Kyaingtong, including Wat Jong Kham, with its gilded spire.  In the center of town, Wat Pha Jao Lung, Wat Ho Kong, and Wat Pha Kaew, virtually across the street from each other.
  • In Kyaingtong you can also have the experience of seeing mountain medicine first-hand, by traveling ten kilometers out of town to the village of Naung Kan, to the Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) colony established by Father Cesare Columbo in the early 1950s.  Villagers come from hundreds of miles around to be treated here, and the hospital is designed so family members of the patients live on the grounds as well, in separate quarters. After release, patients and their families typically move to Kyaingtong. The buildings built by Columbo still stand, although the upper story of the original hospital has been condemned. Columbo’s original operating room, seen in Bill Deneen’s early 1950s film The Touch of His Hand, sits undisturbed as a testimony to his memory. 

To get there, visit the Roman Catholic Mission and Cathedral off the western road leading out of town.  Here, over 100 orphaned boys are cared for.  Explain that you’d like to visit the colony outside of town, and a visit will be arranged.  Depending on his availability, your guide may be Vicar Mario Matu, who will explain the daily life of the  patients.  When we visited, the patient population was 395, most of whom were elderly.  The youngest patient was 12 (the disease is curable if the patient is treated early enough).  

By agreement with the Burmese government, Western religion is not taught in the colony.  Since the colony operates on a shoestring, your small donation will be welcome. 


We found the Princess Hotel to be a friendly, accommodating place, and the desk staff recommended a great trekking guide.  The Princess offers 10 days worth of tours to various spots, and you can select your favorite(s).  Lodging price is roughly $30 per night.

Princess Hotel
No. 21, Zaydankalay Road
Tel: +(95) 84-21319
Fax: +(95) 84-21159 

Getting to Kyaingtong is best done by air, and both Yangon Airways and Air Mandalay fly there from Rangoon, for a fare of roughly $140. They also fly from Mandalay, by way of Heho (Inle Lake).   The airport closes every now and then depending on the military situation in the area, so if you intend on traveling to Kyaingtong, we recommend you arrange your trip as soon as you arrive in Burma. 

Yes, there is a road that runs north from Thailand, beginning in Burma in the town of Tachileik.  It’s seven hours of testy dirt track and, if it’s open, will cost you $10-20, depending on the form of wheeled transportation available. 

The road from Taunggyi to Kyaintong periodically opens to non-Burmese travelers, but closes again just as fast.  When open, convoys are recommended due to the presence of armed dacoits (robbers).

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  1. Ron says:

    Miss my hometown, thanks for sharing the information.
    here is some of keng tong pictures
    hope you will like it!

  2. gixxer guy says:

    How does donating money to a foster house help them?

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