I arrived in Kengtung (also known as Kyaing Tong and Chieng Tung), Myanmar, just in time for the lunar New Year. I wasn’t able to avoid getting soaked, but I did meet some interesting people and got to eat some interesting festival foods.
If visiting Kengtung from Thailand, it’s obligatory to be accompanied by a guide, and I was fortunate enough to end up with Sai Leng, a native of Kentgung.
Like vast majority of the inhabitants of Kentung, Sai Leng is ethnic Tai (Tai Nuea, to be exact). His village, located just outside Kengtung, could easily be mistaken for a Dai community in the Xishuangbanna region of southern China:
His neighbours are predominately Shan and Tai Nuea, and as is the case with all Tai peoples, food plays a significant part in their traditions and celebrations. Eating at a neighbour’s house on the first day of the New Year celebrations, we had some very local-style drinking food (illustrated at the top of this post): starting at 12 o’clock and moving clockwise, there was deep-fried pork; homemade potato chips seasoned with salt and chili, similar to what I’ve eaten in Yunan; pickled phak kum, a local veggie, served with lots of chili and garlic; pork fried with pickled phak kum and more garlic; a steamed cake of ground peanuts with a delicious chili-oil dip; and in the centre, threads of pork fried with ginger and garlic, similar to the Mae Hong Son dish nuea tam.
While we snacked, the same family was also busy preparing aeb khao, sweets of sticky rice flour, sugarcane sugar, coconut and nuts, strongly associated with Shan New Year:
The next morning, after they’ve been steamed, the sweets are given to monks:
When the snacks were depleted, we moved onto lao khao phueak, the local name for rice whiskey, with more neighbours:
We sat drinking and chatting in a mixture of Thai, English and Shan. The latter, although related to Thai and having many cognates, I found essentially unintelligible. Or maybe it was the lao khao phueak? Either way, when the booze was gone, we then made the next logical step: to the side of the road:
After this… Well, to be honest, Sai Leng’s impromptu concert and my dancing soaking wet on the side of the road are pretty much the last things I remember. I woke up in my hotel room at about 10pm having apparently bought some expensive souvenirs on my way home, and in desperate need of something to eat. I headed over to the town centre, where near a stage erected for the festival, at least eight vendors were selling yet another local festival food, khao som:
the dish of rice, meat and blood steamed in a banana leaf known as khao kan jin in northern Thailand.
Meaty and oily – quite possibly the Shan equivalent of the post-hangover burger.
If you’re thinking of visiting Kengtung and need a guide, Sai Leng speaks English well and has a deep knowledge of Shan/Tai culture. He can be contacted at +95 94903 1470 and firstname.lastname@example.org.