The Local Tribes of Myanmar’s Kyaing Tong

Kyaing Tong (pronounced Chyaing Tong and sometimes spelled Keng Tung) is located in the east of Myanmar’s Shan State. Kyaing Tong is known for its unique landscape and ethnic tribes. Some of the most famous hill tribes of Myanmar live in the area of Kyaing Tong. Many people choose not to put Kyaing Tong on their Myanmar itinerary, however, this area is really unique and in our opinion, it is one of the hidden gems of Myanmar.

What Are the Top Attractions of Kyaing Tong, Myanmar

Visit The Hill Tribes of Myanmar

We arrived here especially to visit the local villages which for most tourists is the highlight of their visit here. The hill tribes of Kyaing Tong are extraordinary since many of them still maintain their cultural heritage and old age customs. Some the hill tribes that live in the area are the Akhu tribe whose women are famous for smoking long bamboo pipes, the Ann tribe whose women paint their teeth black, the Akha tribe whose women garments and headdresses are really colorful and unique and the Palaung tribe where you’ll see the eldest women wearing their black and red traditional attire fastened with huge silver belts. Most of the tribes in the area hold on to some traditions of their animist beliefs though some of them were converted by Christian missionaries. Most of the villages in the area of Kyaing Tong are very poor, without any electricity or running water. The tourism industry provides them with the opportunity to earn some money in order to improve their conditions and the local guides are doing their best to help them. 

Our day began with a hike through the mountains on our way to visit some of the local tribes of the area. Climbing the relatively steep hills, and looking around we could see the yellowish rice fields that had already been harvested and some typical scenery of this hilly area. Please consider the fact that tourism has already started to put its mark on these ethnic tribes. There are small “stores” on the way to some of the villages that sell the local hand-made artifacts such as wallets, jewelry etc. Our guide warned us in advance that while entering the village we will be accompanied by groups of women who shall literally shove their hand-made artifacts in our face and beg us to buy one or a dozen of their bead necklaces, pipes or bags. He asked us to wait before buying any items from one of the women because once we buy an item, the other ten women would try their luck and not in a very polite manner. This is a serious problem that the guides are well aware of. They are constantly asking the women to wait with their aggressive and unpleasant selling technique till the end of the visit but the women usually fail to understand.

Woman from a local tribe with a long pipe

One of the highlights of our visits was to be invited to two of the local houses and there we could learn about their daily lives in a more relaxed atmosphere and take some pictures (with better light conditions and without things being shoved in our faces). At the end of the visit we bought a few items from 3-4 women and everyone was happy. We had such a lovely time with our hostess and it was such a special experience to drink tea, nosh on peanuts and the sweetest papaya we’d ever eaten and have a laugh with this local family whose life is so different than ours. A good idea is to bring with you some small gifts for the local women and children (not candy that will cause teeth damage) such as crayons, stickers, hair pins or any kind of toys. To our surprise, the hit of our “goody bag” was the most simple plastic spring toy and the blow ball pipe which was a huge success among the women and the kids alike (once we showed them how to use it, the entire village heard the cheers of joy). You can also collect the toiletries from your hotel and give them to the women. They will gladly accept it with a smile. On our way back we stopped at one of the lookouts overlooking the amazing landscape and enjoyed a typical picnic in the open air with snacks we bought earlier in the local market.

Visit the colorful Kyaing Tong Market

Another attraction in the area is the local market which is considered to be one of the best in Myanmar, and rightly so. In our opinion the best markets can be found in Mandalay but this one is also huge, authentic and has its own special charm. While strolling around the endless colorful stands, tasting unfamiliar fruits and veggies, trying to chat with the locals and snapping pictures at the same time, we also met many monks who came to buy fresh produce. Try and come here before your hike to the local hill tribes and buy some snacks so you could enjoy a picnic in the beautiful scenery of the mountains while hiking to the tribes. We can recommend the sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf which was delicious. 

Taste the Local Rice Wine Straight from the Source

Another thing to do is Kyaing Tong is to visit a local rice wine factory. Our guide took us to a small family-owned local “factory” which was nestled amidst small natural woods of bamboo. After playing around with the kids we had a taste of the homemade rice wine. You’d better prepare yourself –  it is really STRONG!

Getting to Kyaing Tong

The area of Kyaing Tong or Keng Tung has only started welcoming tourists in recent years and the most convenient way to get to Kyaing Tong is by taking a  domestic flight. You might need to obtain a special permit, especially if you arrive by car, so check this link for updated permit inquiries for Kyaing Tong.

What to Expect in Kyaing Tong

At the time of our visit, the conditions in the area of Kyaing Tong were very simple. There weren’t many hotels or places to eat other than the local small restaurants, which for us meant very spicy food. We did manage to find a great coffee shop here (just check the recommendations in TripAdvisor – all five of them). More hotels and restaurants have been opened recently but the area is still off the beaten track and quite far from the regular points of interests in Myanmar, so only come here if you are keen on meeting the local hill tribes of Myanmar and if you are looking for an authentic Myanmar experience. 

The Kyaing Tong area is very special, particularly for travelers who love culture and photography. It is a bit secluded and less touristic than other parts of Myanmar and therefore, it is not on everyone’s bucket list. We hardly met any tourists here and we certainly learned a lot about the people of this area. We also happened to stumble upon a local festival and had a chance to fly candle-lit sky lanterns. If you couldn’t figure it out by now, we loved our time in Kyaing Tong area. You can read more about our adventures in our Kyaing Tong travel story (and also learn about a great place to eat in Kyaing Tong).

For tips about planning your trip to Myanmar, check out this post.

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a local woman from the ethnic tribes in shan state
a local woman from the ethnic tribes in shan state
a local woman from the ethnic tribes in shan state

20 thoughts on “The Local Tribes of Myanmar’s Kyaing Tong”

  1. Incredible portraits! I’m often hesitant to visit tribes for ethical reasons—but if you’re confident it’s all above board, I think it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do in a country like Myanmar. What was your impression of tourism there? Thanks for sharing!

    1. Chasing Lenscapes

      Thanks so much Emily. This place has only started to welcome tourists recently so apart from us, we’ve only seen a couple of other tourists. The local tribe women though are quick to understand how they can take advantage of the situation ( sometimes it is a bit overwhelming). From our guide we learned that the local guides try and help the tribes as much as possible and we felt genuine concern on his part to make sure they are not taken advantage of. Hopefully, it will stay this way.

  2. Oh, wow! What an experience! At the moment, I do have a hard time accepting the current situation of the Rohingyas and how the government is addressing the issue. However, I would be very tempted to go see these tribes. What a unique experience!

    1. Chasing Lenscapes

      Thanks Anna. I understand what you mean. At the time of our visit, we weren’t aware of everything that was going on. We tried to help the local community though and the visit was really unique.

  3. I know very little about Myanmar other than the (usually not so great) news I hear on the TV. Great to read about your experiences and these photos are stunning.

    1. Chasing Lenscapes

      Thank you, Nailah. Myanmar is a mystery. There are still parts that are not allowed for tourists to explore but the ones that we got to explore were really beautiful and unique.

  4. I adore your photographs – really beautiful captures. I am not very good at taking portraits but I am really intrigued my those faces (I know that is a weird thing to say, but I hope you know how I mean it) and I think you captured them beautifully.

    1. Chasing Lenscapes

      Thank you so much Annika! It used to be difficult for us too to take pictures of people and sometimes it still is. We try to talk and break the ice and them maybe have a chance for a more natural looking portrait. We were invited to these women’s houses and spent there some time – so it was a great opportunity in better lighting than the harsh sun outside.

  5. Your photos are stunning! It’s such an interesting thing to do, visit a tribe, and a really good way to get to know local customs. I love the idea of visiting a rice wine factory too!!

  6. What great portraits! Thanks for showing us a glimpse into a unique tribe & culture. I missed the Shan State when I visited Myanmar, I think I would have enjoyed learning about the region, so thanks for sharing your experience!

  7. What a beautiful place! I love discovering places that haven’t been spoiled by mass tourism. It seems the perfect place to get a feel for the way of life, the culture, and the people. Very excited to get over there!

    1. Chasing Lenscapes

      Thank you so much Jennifer. We really try to transport our readers to our destinations so that’s a huge compliment! Myanmar is so wonderful, you are going to enjoy your time there for sure!

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