Fading traditions

(Dana) In 2014, hundreds of thousands of visitors to Myanmar followed the standard tourist loop, including the stunning sites of Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Yangon. As I learned in 2014, the former Burma is a fantastic country filled with lovely people and perched on the brink of a tourist explosion. Myanmar_postIn 2015, I wanted to get beyond these primary locations to experience tribal Myanmar. With the help of my wonderful guide Thurein, dressed always in his pristine hand-woven longyi (sarong), we wandered way off of the tourist track.Our first stop was Loikow, capital of the Kayah state, southeast of Inle Lake toward the Thai border. From my rustic headquarters, we would visit three different tribes — Kayaw, Karen and Kayah.

Myanmar_post0First, we headed deep into the hills, toward a Kayaw village that had only been opened to tourists for about six months. After picking up our local guide who would translate from the local dialect into Myanmar language, our 4WD climbed through the hills for hours along a one-track road. Suddenly, we were stopped in our (single) track with a broken down truck. With a several hundred foot drop to the left and a hillside to our right, we were stuck. Fortunately, a motor bike soon appeared. Thurein negotiated for him to ride to the next town, bring back two friends and give the three of us rides on the back of their bikes to our destination… all while our car turned around to navigate a much longer route. Speeding along the bumpy road on the back of a motorbike, I couldn’t help but think about my mistake in neglecting med-evac insurance! Fortunately, we made it safely to our destination, the Htekho village.

Myanmar_post1To break the ice, we shared our lunch with several village women. Surprisingly, these ladies in full traditional attire made the sign of the cross and prayed before they began eating. Apparently, even though few tourists have been here, Italian missionaries have worked this area for centuries. After our meal, we wandered the village, meeting some of the hard-working women as they separated rice from husks, pounded rice, dried grain for alcohol, carried firewood and cared for babies. We offered gifts of cooking oil, salt and noodles in exchange for our intrusion and our photos. I definitely scared some of the youngest children, who clearly hadn’t seen many large white tourists before. At one point, a truckload of militia holding AK-47s roared through the town, apparently on their way to guard poppy fields only 3-5 miles away… a clear reminder of why this area had been closed to tourists for so long.

Returning to civilization, we stopped to marvel at the road crew paving the single track into these hills. Myanmar_post3A swarm of workers, comprised mostly of women, lay large rocks along a laid out string. Medium rocks were dumped on, filling the large gaps. Baskets full of small rocks filled in the smaller gaps. Tar — heated over fires on the side of the road — was layered on, binding the rocks. A steamroller crushed down the top with a final layer of tar. Like make a huge lasagna. Incredibly labor intensive process, with almost no machines. Their progress was relentless, although I couldn’t help but wonder what impact it would have on the blissful isolation of the villages I had just seen.

Myanmar_post4The next day, we visited two villages of the Geykho or Kayan, also known pejoratively as Padaung, “long-necks” or “giraffe women.” Starting at about 7-years old, girls are fitted with brass rings around their necks. Twice more in their life – 25 and 50 years old – the rings are taken off, lengthened and returned, reaching a total weight of about 8kg (18 pounds!). Once on, these rings do not come off, although there is a creative locking mechanism that allows the stem and the base to unlock for sleeping. Hmm… that’s more comfortable? No one knows the origin of the brass rings (which supposedly used to be gold), and the legends vary: the original wearers wanted to 1) resemble the dragon who was their father, 2) avoid tiger bites on the neck, 3) repel men from other tribes to protect themselves from slavery, 4) attract only purebred Kayan men who would recognize their beauty and 5) carry their wealth.

Myanmar_post4aThose who know anatomy would already have figured out that the neck itself does not stretch. Instead, the weight of the rings pushes down on the collarbones, compressing the rib cage and giving the illusion of a longer neck. Although I met several Kayan women in Bagan and Inle in 2014, spending time with them in their own village introduced me to their real way of life. The women gather wood, farm, make alcohol and provide for their families. They are also master weavers, making their own fabrics and scarves. Interestingly, not all of the women had started to put rings on their daughters. In fact, one teen I met in 2014 in Inle wears an adapted version of the rings that she puts on for the tourists every day. In today’s world, as the reasons for wearing rings become more distant, this tradition likely will begin to fade.

Myanmar_post5Our final stop in this area was a Kayah village that sees even fewer visitors. Although only a handful of women still wore their native, hand-made attire, the older ladies who did were happy to pose in exchange for some soap and butane lighters. Myanmar_post5a

One lovely lady saw me as a traveling oddity. We were taking some photos with our arms around each other. She stopped, patted my backside and laughingly made a comment about my healthy size! We dissolved into giggles as I learned the Kayah word for “fat!” As I was admiring the waxed cotton bands that she wears around her calves/knees, she decided she wanted to put some on me. Unfortunately, we found that she had to take off her largest ones to have them fit over my American calves. It doesn’t sound as hilarious as I write this, but we were all very entertained!

Myanmar_post6aAfter connecting with my friend Julie, we flew to Bagan and drove six hours west to Mindat. Again, way off the standard tourist track. Our goal here was to spend time with the ladies of the Chin state who tattoo their faces. Although the genesis of the custom is unknown, it is believed to have made the women less attractive to the marauding Burmese king seeking concubines. This striking tradition is fading quickly. Of all the women we saw, only the older (>60 years) were all tattooed. A few women in their 30s/40s. But the majority of the younger girls were not. When we asked the older women if they planned to tattoo their granddaughters, the answer was a resoundingly “no.” This is not something that people will be able to see other than in photos in the next 20 years.



This was the first time since our 2010-11 trip that I spent time connecting with native people who were not posing for tourist photos. I was reminded of how much I love seeing things “while I still can.” I am blessed.

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