Did you hear about Kayan tribes?
They make part of Karenni people, “the long-neck tribes”. The Kayani tribes are in big numbers in two states of Myanmar, Shan, and Kayah, (currently I’m in Kayah) but they are spread in Thailand and Vietnam too. Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. Girls first start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old. Over the years, the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added.
What is the reason behind this practice?
There are many hypotheses regarding why the coils are worn. Some anthropologists considered that the rings protected women from becoming slaves. On the other hand, it has been theorized that the coils originate from the idea of creating a beauty model. If we follow the folklore’s explanations, we could consider that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon. Other specialists suggest that the rings might be meant to protect from tiger bites because this was a real threat in the past. Nowadays, Kayan women say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity.
What is the impact of tourism in Kayan villages?
I travel in Kayah state which was known as the Karenni state in the past. In order to understand better the actual situation, let’s have a travel back in history too. The British Government recognized the independence of Karenni states in a treaty in 1875, so they weren’t incorporated in British Burma. When Myanmar obtained its independence in 1947, the Constitution proclaimed that the three Karenni states will be united in one constituent state of the Union of Burma. In 10 years, they would have had the possibility of secession from the union if their leaders wouldn’t have been satisfied with the central government. The next year, the Karenni leader was assassinated and since 1957, the Karenni Army has been fighting with the government in order to create a Karenni independent state.
Due to the conflict in the area and the lack of opportunity, many Kayan women left their homes in Kayah to Thailand where they became tourist attractions. I’ve visited villages of Pan Pet for one day and almost everywhere I’ve met women that were saying that they have little shops in Thailand too. Some of them came back to their village for good because in the last years’ tourism increased Myanmar too. Most of them came back only for a short period because of the coronavirus that affected more Thailand.
In this situation is Mu Stu, from Pan Pet, Myanmar, working in Thailand in the last five years, having little shops next to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. She came back to Myanmar last month where she opened another Kayan shop close to her village. She is wearing her neck rings for approximately 45 years, she is happy to promote her traditions but at the same time, she is looking for different opportunities to develop her small business.
Inside the new Pan Pet village, I’ve met Mu Sar, a 20 years old girl that was happy to practice her English. She decided not to wear the coils because she wants to study. When I asked what does she want to do in her future, she answered that her dream is to become a businesswoman in her village. Her purpose is to develop tourism in Kayan villages.
On the other hand, walking through these villages, I saw many old women that were doing their daily activities without waiting for the tourists to come to see them. They wear these rings every day even when they eat. They try to keep going this practice but most of the young women decided not to wear it daily just for special occasions. And I totally understand why, when I’ve tried one, I felt that I’ll be suffocated.
I hope they will find a balance between promoting their identity to the foreigners in a touristic way and maintaining their traditions and clothes for themselves. All of this in a peaceful environment because let’s not forget that this state is still in conflict with the government. Anyway, don’t be afraid to travel there, I am a solo traveler and I felt safe. Still, my advice is to travel in a responsible way, try to learn about their culture with humbleness and real curiosity. Tourism is important for these villages but the way how they create it will depend also about us, the tourists.