Offlimits for decades due to the longrunning conflict between the Burmese Tatmadaw, Shan insurgents, and local opium barons, Kengtung (also spelled Kyaingtong; pronounced chengdong) is the capital of the Golden Triangle region and a springboard for exploring one of the most fascinating regions in Southeast Asia. Tai minorities (mostly Tai Lü, Tai Nuea, and Tai Khün) dominate the town itself, while surrounding hill villages are divided between Ann, Akha, Wa, and Palaung, all of whom retain their traditional ways of life. The best intro duc tion to the various groups, who are distinguished by their elab orate costumes, is the daily Gard Luang Central Market, for which shoppers from the hill tracts don their finest clothes and jewelry. Local agencies arrange guided treks that take in a cross section of the area’s minorities. Permits may be required, and overnight stays are not allowed, although this may change.
Kengtung itself makes a pleasant base for day trips. The road around Naung Tung Lake, in the center of town, affords great views of the somewhat ramshackle skyline, dominated by the graceful profile of the Wat Jong Kham (Zom Kham), a gilded stupa crowned by a golden hti (finial). The wat is said to date from a 13thcentury migration from Chiang Mai’s Lanna kingdom. At an intersec- tion nearby stands the Maha Myat Muni (Wat Mahamuni), whose interior is richly deco- rated with traditional goldleaf Tai murals on bur gundy back- grounds. The Buddha here is a replica of Mandalay’s shiny- faced Mahamuni. Near the lake’s southwest corner, the Yet Taw Mu, an impressive 60ft (18m) standing Buddha swathed in gold leaf, is among the town’s more distinctive land marks.