the Beautiful Valley
by: Hpone Thant
Photos: Sonny Nyein
To the east of Myanmar there is a beautiful valley between
the high misty mountains of the Shan Plateau and the Mekong and the
Thanlwin (Salween) Rivers. Called the Kyaing Tong Valley this is an area
steeped in history for it is the homeland of the Gon Shan, the Akhas, the
Lisu, the Wa and the White and Black Lahu. Sandwiched between the Chinese
region of Xishanungbanna, Laos and Thailand this area also boast of
spectacular scenery and diverse ethnicity.
Kyaing Tong( previously called Keng Tung) is the capital of this land. It
was known in history by many names: Sandra Kun, Khemarat, Tongapuri but in
modern times it is known only as Kyaing Tong.
It was said that from1243 A.D (605 Myanmr Era) to the last sawbwa's reign
there were altogether 45 sawbaws who ruled here. The sawbwas' Cemetery,
where the old rulers were buried is still kept intact in the town.
Although there are many different ethnic cousins living in the area, with
different religious beliefs such as Buddhists, Christians and a sprinkling
of animists, the majority areBuddhists. The Gon Shans believe that
Buddhism reached their land more than 2000 years ago. It was said that
Lord Buddha, in his 12th year after achieving Enlightenment, traveled to
Kyaing Tong accompanied by more than 50 monks. At that time the area which
was to become Kyaing Tong was submerged under a big lake with only a few
scattered villages on the surrounding mountain peaks. There he met a
simple woodcutter named Aik Aum to whom He gave 8 Holy Hairs. Four were
buried inside the Dat San Lwe Pagoda also called Kaba Aye Pagoda, located
near the present day airport. Aik Aun gave the other four to his brother
and which were buried inside the Dat Hwe Lon Pagoda.
150 years after this episode, the story continues that 4 hermit brothers
came to the same place and one of them found a stone slab engraved with
Buddha's message under the ground. One of the hermits, Tong Gara Si, made
a breach in the lake and all the waters flowed out and the town of Kyaing
Tong was founded on that spot. Nong Tong Lake in the middle of the city is
said to be the remnant of the lake that was drained. By this tradition
during the sawbwas' time the new sawbwa who is to ascend the throne has to
symbolically give the city back to the monks before assuming power.
Kyaing Tong is reputed to be a very powerful city during its time. It was
said to be walled and even now Palin Gate still stands as witness to its
greatness many centuries ago.
There are many legend and tales connected with the city. One is the belief
among the sawbwas when they ruled Kyaing Tong that they cannot go to the
Dat San Lwe Pagoda because there is a curse on them.
One prominent landmark of Kyaing Tong is the "Lone Tree Hill". This is a
Kanyin byu (Dipterocarpus alatus) tree growing on top of the Soon Mun Hill
on the outskirt of the city. The locals believed that this tree was
planted in 1386 A.D (730 M.E). It stands alone on this hill and
consequently the hill earned the name of "Lone Tree Hill". The story goes
that this is one of the three trees that three brothers planted to cement
their mutual trust and assistance in time of war or emergencies. One
brother, who ruled over the territory now known as Xishaungbanna, planted
a tree at Wan Pun and it was known as Aik Hong or Elder Brother Tree.
Another brother who ruled over Mong Lem planted another tree called Yi Lem
or Middle Brother Tree at Mei Sarita Hill and the third who ruled over
Kyaing Tong planted this third tree called San Hkun or Youngest Brother
Tree on the Soon Mun Hill. Now only this tree at Soon Mun Hill at Kyaing
Tong is left. The others two trees are said to be no more.
On the high peaks surrounding Kyaing Tong are many ethnic groups: Gon
Shan, Ahku, Akha, Lahu, Eng and the Wa people. Living in picturesque
villages that cling on high slopes these tribes still retains their
distinctive dresses, their own customs and traditions. The Akha people are
particularly conspicuous with their glittering silver headdresses. There
are also many different Lahu sub-clans such as the White Lahu and the
Black Lahu, distinguished by the colour of their dresses.
The Palaung women also have a story behind their dresses. According to
their beliefs they are descended from the mythical Keinnari or half-human,
half-bird creatures. While the seven female Keinnaries were splashing and
bathing on a lake a prince came along and caught the youngest with his
magic lasso. The present day dresses of the Palaung women reflect this
capture: all wear 3 belts, first a cloth belt, then a silver belt and
lastly a cane-strip belt, symbolizing the lasso. The sarong is wrapped
around her chest with a blouse on top. Because the original Keinarri, that
was captured had to dress quickly there was no time to button her blouse
so she fastened it with a thorn. Even nowadays the Palaung women's blouses
have no buttons but the safety pins had replaced the thorns. They say that
if all three belts are taken off they would surely fly away to their
native land of Ngwe Taung or Silver Mountain Land.
The Eng are another interesting people. They live on high mountain slopes
with running water brought down from springs via bamboo conduits. Their
teeth are stained black for they say only animals have white teeth. They
also believe it is better to be clean and pure inside than outside,
meaning the heart should be pure: a very interesting philosophy for
sophisticated town people. Their granaries are built away from the home to
prevent them from being burnt down as there is no way to douse the fire
with water on a mountain. If you see a man with flowers in his left ear
lobe it means he is looking for a wife and any interested girl could
The Gon Shans also celebrate Thingyan or the New Year like their cousins
on the plains. But there is something unique in the rituals. The Mingalar
Si or the "Drum of Auspiciousness" is beaten for 24 hours before the
Thingyan Celebrations are ushered in. On the last day of Thingyan a papier
mache doll of Sakra the King of Celestial Beings is carried to the banks
of a nearby river and married to the statue of a clay frog princess. Age
old customs dictate that the drum must be beaten only by the members of a
particular clan and the person who plays the role Sakra must be a member
of a particular clan also. But that's another long story!
Kyaing Tong also has a lacquer industry known as Kyaing Tong lacquer ware.
It is different from the Bagan style. The finely executed gold filigree is
embossed on black lacquer making a distinctive contrast.
Hpone Thant is a regular contributor to Enchanting Myanmar travel magazine
and other local and international publications. He writes mostly on
nature, culture and traditions of Myanmar and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.