Kyaing Tong: Town in the Beautiful Valley

Posted: September 25, 2011 in Articles, Myanmar History

by: Hpone Thant
Photos: Sonny Nyein
The lonely sentinel, Youngest Brother Tree
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.

Silver Palaungs i n their native dresses. Note the belts on the lady in the green blouse Silver Palaungs i n their native dresses. Note the belts on the lady in the green blouse he Black Lahu  people of Kyaing Tong
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.

Akha ladies in their finery they wear every single dayOne 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.

A  shy White Lahu girl  New Year festivities of the Gon Shan people
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 apply!
 Palin gate, legacy of the past Nong Tong Lake, remnant of the large body of  water that once covered the whole area Akha ladies in their finery they wear every single day

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!

Warm smiles welcome you to Kyaing TongKyaing 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:

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