High up on the Karen Hills, the existence of an ethnic tribe is in peril. Known for their "giraffe women", the Kayan in Myanmar's remote east are struggling to keep their traditions alive after prosperity and modernisation arrived in their community.
LOIKAW, Myanmar: The sun is setting above sleepy Pekon. Parts of its old city lie submerged under the blue water that has snaked miles from Inle Lake into Kayah State in the south. On its glassy surface is a picture-perfect reflection of the Shan Hills rippling gently against the golden sky.
“Our mother was a dragon,” says a man in a grey jumper. His soft voice has a hint of a British accent. "Some people say that to remember our dragon mother, they have the same sort of neck."
Pascal Khoo Thwe is referring to an ancient legend about the women of Kayan, who are known for their giraffe-like neck that looks unnaturally stretched in the clasp of brass rings. Their striking appearance has not only fascinated tourists from the world over but also made the Kayan one of the most recognisable ethnic groups in Southeast Asia.
While the legends are centuries old, the practice faces an uncertain future. Some women have decided to abandon it, choosing a more modern style. And some that continue to wear the rings do so not because of any dedication to the tradition, but for pragmatic, commercial reasons instead: Big-spending tourists come to the area to take pictures of long-necked women.
Pascal is no stranger to the unusual accessories. A Kayan himself, he grew up seeing his grandmother with brass coils gleaming around her neck. “The rings were fourteen inches high and rose to her head as though they were supporting a pagoda stupa,” wrote the 49-year-old in his award-winning autobiography From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey.
The neck-rings have been part of an ancient tradition among female members of Kayan Lahwi, a sub-tribe of the Kayan ethnic group native to Kayah State. They were expensive fashion items and commonly reserved for favourite daughters in each household. Today, they are a rarity.
“Only a small handful of the women still wear them, in some parts due to economic pressure. So the number will be reduced considerably,” Pascal said.
He estimates that there are now fewer than a hundred long-neck women across the whole of Myanmar, a decline from a few decades ago when there were 300 to 400 in Shan and Kayah states alone.
The gradual disappearance of the centuries-old custom is obvious in Pan Pet, a remote Kayan native village of more than 1,000 residents. For decades, armed conflicts and a heavy military presence kept it shut from the outside world, making it one of the least visited areas in the country. It was not until 2012 that Pan Pet opened its door to visitors and, seemingly, new social values.
“Most kids aren’t wearing them nowadays because of the modern culture.” Old Mu Lone makes a remark about the fading culture in the tribe, her long neck glimmering in the sun.
“In my time, women weren’t beautiful without neck-rings. But now, they think they look beautiful without them,” said the 88-year-old.
“TOO UGLY” TRADITION
Many myths and legends surround the ancient tradition. Some people say the rings are used to imprison women. Others claim they are worn as self-protection from tiger bites. More common theories point towards beauty and wealth.
“People have an idea that having a long neck is beautiful and also to show off their wealth. The longer the neck, the more men like them,” Pascal said.
That seems to be no longer the case. In Pan Pet, as the community has modernised, many Kayan females have opted for a more contemporary style, with t-shirts, blouses and trousers taking the place of traditional dress, and more discreet jewellery replacing the neck rings.
The issue for many young women is two-fold: Firstly, the influence of outside cultures is resulting in a rethink of what constitutes beauty. Perhaps more important, though, is that many women are not willing to put up with the discomfort of wearing the neck rings.
A full set comprises three spiral brass rings – one on the collarbones, another on the neck and the last one wrapped around the bottom piece. Together, they weigh about 10 kilogrammes.
“It was painful,” said 23-year-old Muu Pley. At the age of seven, she was fitted with shiny neck-rings. Thirteen years later, she took them off, partly for fear that her neck would grow too long.
"I felt so free and so light.”
For many old Kayan women though, their elegance is well worth the pain.
“The rings choked me and felt too tight at first. Food would get stuck when I tried to swallow. I had to stretch my neck to eat. But I got used to it,” Mu Lone said with a smile.
She was fitted with the rings when she was nine, almost eight decades ago. With help from one of the elders, straight pieces of brass were expertly coiled around her neck, one by one. The whole process took hours to complete.
CULTURE ON DISPLAY
Despite the pressures, the tradition lives on. A limited number of Kayan females continue to wear the neck-rings, for various reasons. Muu Pley is one of them.
Less than a year ago, the mother-of-two put the rings back on her neck, mainly because of a tourism boom in the village. Long-necked women have never been more popular among visitors and their incomes are growing.
Dust filled the air as a busload of tourists drove past her small souvenir shop. Its foreign passengers waved at the small woman and other villagers nearby. They had snapped a few photographs of her when the long-necked woman was cradling a baby in her arms. Many of them then bought bracelets, scarves and other trinkets after securing their perfect shot.
"I’ll continue wearing the neck-rings,” Muu Pley said softly.
THE PRICE OF MODERNISATION
While some women still wear the rings, there are concerns that the tradition could be under threat, especially if the main driving force is commercial gain.
Pascal is worried this could mean that the deep foundations that have sustained the practice will start to erode: “It seems to keep the culture, but it doesn’t keep the spirit of the tradition. It’s just a kind of physical appearance.”
Attempts are being made to protect the practice. Pascal (below) is the national consultant for the International Trade Centre (ITC) – a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation – devoting his time to promote trade opportunities through sustainable development in Kayah State.
Part of the plan is to promote Kayan traditions in Pan Pet and use them to generate income from tourism for the villagers, while preserving their fading culture. The process is in its early stages. Villagers are being trained to operate tours around their community and a centralised accounting system is being put in place to manage incomes from tourism.
"We’re trying to find ways to sustain tourism so that it is inclusive, everyone can take part in it," Pascal said.
But the clock is ticking and the community is trying to work out how it can preserve the tradition of the long-neck women – if, indeed, it actually wants to.
In Pan Pet, the sun has already gone down and the village is bidding farewell to the last tour bus of the day. A group of small children has gathered around a campfire to keep themselves warm.
Nearby, a young girl is loitering in the street, her neck-rings rattling softly. Nobody knows how long she will keep them on. But for the likes of Mu Lone, the rings will rest on their necks for life.
“I’ll wear them until I die and have them buried with me,” the old woman says.
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