The long-necked tribe of Kayah state

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Wild and mountainous, the state of Kayah in Myanmar** was off-limits to foreign tourists until a few years ago. Up until now, accommodation options are limited in Loikaw city and non-existent outside of it. Remote corners of this land remain essentially unexplored, possibly even by the Burmese, and extremely hard to reach. But even closer to the city, there is plenty of attractions. The key point here is tribal cultures: an endemic animist religion, traditional lifestyle, and most of all, the famous (or infamous) long-necked women of Kayan tribe. Whatever moral ambiguity may surround visiting their enclaves in North Thailand does not apply here. This is not a human zoo, but a cluster of indigenous villages, and if anything, the Kayan benefit from the tourist **trade, especially if you visit it independently.

© Mark Levitin

The Kayan villages

A few long-necked girls, dressed up and adorned with thanaka, can be seen posing for domestic tourists near Ngwe Taung Lake, just south of Loikaw. The lake itself serves as a minor attraction, and the nearby town of Demoso has a good tribal market, but the real Kayan villages are further away. Most of them are in or around the Ponpet cluster - some maps in fact show Ponpet I, Ponpet II, and so on, even though the villagers have different names for their hamlets. Just before you reach it, there is a line of souvenir shops along the road, often with long-necked women weaving on handlooms; group tours seldom go any further. The first village, the real Ponpet, is where most weaving is done. As you continue past it, you will come to a field of ancient Key To Bo - religious structures, sort of totem poles - and then reach the next village. A few English-speaking teenagers here may volunteer as guides - a worthwhile idea if you do not speak Burmese. Other than that, expect nothing designed for tourism or influenced by it. The Kayan live mostly off their fields and cowherds, surprisingly large for ethnicity that has very recently been the victim of political oppression. Feel free to wander around. Most people here are neither exceptionally gregarious nor reclusive - in all likelihood, they will treat you with mild curiosity, nothing more. 

© Mark Levitin

It is all about the neck

The reason behind the extended necks in Kayan women is unclear: some mention their mythical ancestor, a dragon (think the Chinese breed, with a long scaly neck), most fall back on the common idea of protecting the girls from kidnapping by neighboring tribes. Whatever the origin is, the practice is alive and well, unlike so many tribal beautification traditions in the world nowadays. Old crones and pre-school girls alike spot the famous brass coils around their necks. And yes, it is coils, not rings. While this may look scary, even painful, like a proper torture implement, it is not - and perhaps Papuan tribes would think the same about a bra. The fairy-tale about the coil's removal as a punishment for adultery is just that, a lie, and no, the neck will not snap if they take it off. They do it sometimes, mostly to wash the skin underneath. With luck, you may come across a grandma unwinding the coil on a young girl to replace it with a slightly longer one. This has to be done regularly to ensure steady adjustment of the skeleton. What happens is not really the neck extending - increasing the distance between vertebrae would have eventually crippled the child - but the shoulder belt being pushed down, releasing more or the spine. Long necks come at the cost of somewhat square-ish bodies.

© Mark Levitin

Kan Khwan - the Karenni faith

If you can, try to visit Kayah state in March. This is when the so-called Karenni New Year, the Key To Bo festival, takes place. The dates differ from village to village, so you are likely to coincide with at least one if you ask around. The Key To Bo, wooden pillars of three varieties, symbolize the three forces of life: the male, the female, and that of the fertile land. During the festival, a new male pillar is erected and consecrated, followed by chanting, divination, traditional dances and mass prayer. This animist faith, Kan Khwan, is not unique to Kayan tribe, but common among other sub-groups of Karenni as well. It may well be a more inspiring aspect of their culture than long-necked women (although the necks, admittedly, are more photogenic).

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