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Two Journeys

Two journeys from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Keng Tung (Chiangtung), Burma illuminated in this web module are separated by a span of 125 years. The first took place in 1887 over unpaved trails and river beds, using mules and small Shan ponies as transport, and assisted by a cook and three assistants to set up camp and deal with local languages and logistics.  The second took place in 2010 on paved roads and in the comfort of a van with an experienced driver and professional escort-interpreter to deal with immigration and meals and lodging for a 4-day round trip. The first journey was written and illustrated with sketches in a journal that was printed in Calcutta in 1887. Two copies were recently discovered by the Thai historian David Wyatt shortly before his death, and a new reprint with an introduction by him was issued in 2005 by Silkworm Books.

After reading a copy of the book, I conceived the idea of creating a web site with multimedia functions, including voice recordings for the visually challenged, to make Keng Tung and its dramatic history better known to others and to attempt a comparative study of the late 1800s with early 2000 in a small corner of Southeast Asia during times when several powers were competing for control of this tiny spot on the world’s map.  My journey was recorded in a series of over 1000 geo-tagged photos that were uploaded for viewing on this web site. For those who do not have the chance to travel to this special place and to see the terrain, the people and their lifestyles, the slide show will be a means of sharing my experience and the beauty of a truly exotic corner of the world.

The city of Keng Tung had been contested by the Burmese, Siamese and British, even the Chinese, for centuries. All of these powerful neighboring states failed to gain control of the city because of its geographical isolation and the political will and intelligence of its rulers. There are seven high mountain ranges between Keng Tung and the Salween River to the west, providing natural defenses for the city in that direction. The approach from the east through Siam (Thailand) is easier but still made difficult by long traveling distances and issues of providing elephants and well-equipped troops, with daily provisions for both. The region is often shrouded in lingering morning fogs, adding to the challenge of reconnaissance. Foremost is the fact that the residents of the region are mostly speakers of Tai languages, such as Shan, Kheun, Lue and other languages of Sino-Tai and Austro-Asiatic languages as well. They have shown themselves to be fiercely independent and skillful in balancing the competing powers against each other and they themselves, with Burma “The Mother” to the south and China “The Father” to the north and an unloving child—Keng Tung—in between. This situation of protective isolation has held until recently, but the construction of paved roads in the 1990s and access by air means that Keng Tung will soon be part of the drift towards globalization and also sorely challenged in preserving its identity and natural beauty and resources. Already, the hills and mountains of the broader region have been slowly cleared and planted to rubber trees to feed the demand for the product in China and elsewhere, including the U.S.

In 2010, the city was quiet, peaceful, colorful, clean, cool and largely devoid of the hustle and bustle of Thailand, with its armies of motorcycles and pick-up trucks everywhere—and cell phones in every hand. There was no cell phone connectivity to be had, and electricity was limited to night hours. Thus it was not surprising to see brisk trade in kindling wood. Markets were colorful and crowded in the early morning. Food stalls were packed with couples and families eating steaming bowls of noodles and rice dishes. Young Burmese-speaking monks could be seen having breakfast inside as well, or begging for money outside, activities which must have been against the monastic rules but did not seem out of place in the relaxed environment.  At the time of the journey in 2010, Keng Tung seemed like a town preserved in amber.

Professor Hartmann