After a decades-long blanket ban on tourists, Kayah State in eastern Myanmar has opened up to the outside world. Travellers are pouring in to get a glimpse of its untouched beauty. As Pichayada Promchertchoo reports, the remote state is hoping to develop a tourist industry without losing its charm.
LOIKAW, Myanmar: U La Yu is scraping dry chicken bones with his knife, searching for a message no eyes can see. The elderly shaman of Pan Pet is performing a tribal ritual that dates back centuries. Then comes a moment of revelation.
“The bones told me you will have very good fortune over the next year. If you stay in foreign lands, nobody will be able to stop you,” U La Yu reveals my future, turning two chicken leg bones around in his hands. Grey smoke curls up slowly from a fire pit to the ceiling of his house in the mountainous state of Kayah.
U La Yu has been a spiritual leader of Pan Pet for the past 30 years.
Fortune telling is an integral part of his role as a spiritual leader, but it has a wider purpose. It is also a popular attraction for tourists who visit Pan Pet, a collection of five hamlets native to the Kayan ethnic group in Myanmar’s hilly east.
Until recently, however, a tourist industry would have been unimaginable in this region. Since the 1950s, Kayah State had been a war zone between the military and ethnic armed groups. Tens of thousands of men, women and children fled violence to refugee camps in Thailand. For decades, the area remained blocked off from the outside world.
MYANMAR’S HIDDEN GEM
Four years ago, things started to change. A ceasefire agreement between the government and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) has triggered a steady stream of tourists seeking a rare glimpse of Myanmar’s hidden gem, where unspoiled beauty and diverse ethnic tribes offer a unique experience off the beaten path.
The Kayan ethnic group is one of the many tribes in Kayah State.
Now, daily flights operate between Yangon and the state’s capital of Loikaw, while fleets of tourist boats continue to arrive from Inle Lake, a nearby beauty spot. Kayah State has never been busier.
“The expat community in Yangon is growing very fast and people are looking for places to go over long weekends,” said Jens Uwe Parkitny, a Frankfurt-born photographer who recently opened a guesthouse in Loikaw.
During his first visit to Kayah State, shortly after the ceasefire, Parkitny saw untapped potential in its rustic charm. As he anticipated, rooms at his guesthouse have been booked out every weekend since it opened in October. “Loikaw is so new. It still feels like the old Myanmar, which I associate with time travel and what Southeast Asia probably was 60 years ago.”
Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State.
“WE MIGHT LOSE OUR CHARMING PLACE”
Yet, there are fears the old-world charm could soon be lost as people in Kayah State look to quickly exploit the situation in a chase for tourist dollars that is gathering pace with few limitations.
“We have limited knowledge of tourism and also very limited resources. If there is a tourism boom and more investors come here, we might lose our charming place,” said Win Nie from the International Trade Centre (ITC) - a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization that aims to develop Kayah State through sustainable tourism.
Despite an increase in visitors, tourism as an industry remains a new concept and a challenge for locals, many of whom are still unfamiliar with people from the outside world.
A Kayan mother and her baby take shelter from the sun.
Frictions exist between ethnic groups and visitors, who sometimes come across as intrusive and disrespectful to tribal culture. Hospitality services are seen as generally poor and over-priced. Local transportation and tourist activities remain limited and waste management is also a developing challenge.
Yet, there is no denying that the eastern state, one of the poorest in the country, needs income from tourism in order to move forward.
In 2014, a community-based tourism project was launched in Kayah State by ITC, in partnership with the Myanmar government and the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Through sustainable tourism, it aims to create jobs and generate incomes for local communities and businesses, while rebuilding ethnic villages that were dying out after decades of violence. Pan Pet is one of them.
A Kayan long-necked woman.
Known for its long-necked women who wear spiral brass neck-coils, the community of more than 1,000 people plays an integral part in the programme.
Several villagers have been trained as community guides, which requires them to show visitors around the hamlets and pass on stories of their history and traditional way of life. The walking tour usually includes a visit to different villagers known for various skills, from silverwork to weaving, wood carving and fortune telling.
A Kayan woman weaves a cotton scarf.
“Most tourists ask about the neck-rings and we can answer all their questions. So they’re satisfied and feel that Pan Pet is worth a visit,” said the leader of Pan Pet’s community guides, Maung Tha.
In the past, tourists would only go to Pan Pet to take a few photos, spending less than an hour there. There was little sense of any connection between the villagers and their guests, and the long-necked women could only expect a few dollars from a photo op. Following the ITC community-based tourism project, however, the gap between locals and tourists has begun to shrink.
At the same time, the community has developed, and the growing presence of tourists has resulted in more financial support from the government to improve infrastructure. Pan Pet now has running water, Internet connectivity and better roads. And financially, lives have also improved.
Handmade bracelets and rings are popular souvenirs for tourists in Pan Pet.
Muang Tha is earning about US$90 per month, with US$23 coming from farming and the rest from the walking tours. Other villagers who are not community guides have also seen their incomes grow. For each visit to a local home, tourists pay a small fee of US$2. And after a tour, many of the visitors buy handmade souvenirs such as scarves, bracelets and rings.
“The money I get from selling scarves is the main income for my family,” says Mu Aye, a long-necked weaver. Farming used to be her only source of income and life was harsh. “We had to work the whole day. But since tourists started to come here, it has become more convenient.”
Mu Aye, a resident of Pan Pet.
The residents of Pan Pet have been surprised to see so many tourists. Last year, Maung Tha and other guides took care of around 10 visitors every month. This year, however, the number has already doubled and expertise in sustainable tourism and resource management has gained importance.
“We can see bright prospects for tourism here if we keep operating systematically,” Maung Tha said.
The community-based tourism programme is scheduled to conclude in 2017. So far, ITC has established what it believes is a sound foundation that will help Pan Pet stand on its own in the long run.
Training for guides is regularly carried out and a centralised accounting system is being put in place to properly distribute profits from tourism. Villagers also receive support that connects them with other stakeholders along the tourism supply chain, such as clients and tour operators in Yangon as well as abroad.
"We can see bright prospects for tourism here."
However, the main goal is not to attract tourists but to create an effective system that will help the village manage its affairs in a sustainable fashion without destroying its resources ahead of a tourism boom.
“We are expecting to receive quite a lot of tourists in the future and, of course, there is still a lot to prepare. And for locals, it’s really a big challenge,” Win Nie said.
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