The long neck women are distinguished for wearing brass coils all over their neck.
Ever since I saw a photo of Bagan, my curiosity got me thinking, dreaming of the day that I would visit Myanmar. To be exact, I dreamed of seeing Myanmar with the man that I love (read my bucket list).
The places and the culture that I have seen is far more than I actually dreamed of. Myanmar is a huge country that offers so much and it was hard to plan a route with our limited time. As I was traveling with my boyfriend (who had been to Myanmar thrice before our visit), we decided to include a few places that he, too, hasn’t been. A place where both of us would visit for the first time, together.
And one of those places was Loikaw.
Taungkwe Pagoda, Loikaw
I was excited, knowing that I would get to meet a tribe that I’ve only seen on TV and read off of the internet. We had decided to visit the long neck women in a village near Loikaw.
Have you ever heard about or seen the long neck women?
In a village not far from Loikaw lives a small ethnic tribe known as Padaung or Kayan Lahwi. The women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing brass rings around their neck. These brass rings are worn as early as the age of 5. The brass ring is replaced by a longer one and more coils are added as they grow older. Because of the weight of the rings, the collar bone is deformed–being pushed down, making it appear that the neck has been lengthened.
There were several beliefs as to why they put brass around their neck. From what I read, some believed that it was attributed to beauty. Others said that it was used as protection from the tigers. But the most reasonable was to protect themselves from becoming slaves by making themselves less attractive.
These women are known to be the long neck women.
We were going to visit Panpet, the village near Loikaw where some of the Kayan Lahwi tribe lives.
Making our way there allowed us to witness how the daily life of the locals unfolded along the road: women taking care of the road construction amidst the heat of the soaring sun.
Road construction by local women, Loikaw
Going past paved roads and road constructions, we are finally led into the hill where a dirt road barely exists. Cars are only able to pass this road up to a certain point. For us, even with the motorbike, it was dramatic to say the least.
Me and my boyfriend thought it would be best to visit them in their own village as we believed it was more responsible to see them there as compared to seeing them in tourist spots such as Inle Lake or perhaps, in Thailand where money is solicited with some being forced to wear the coils for tourism purposes.
What I didn’t expect was how I would feel.
When we arrived in Panpet village, I had a mix of emotions.
We were finally there amidst all the detours and changes in schedule.
I should be giddy and yet, I had a bag of confusion, hesitation, guilt and worry.
A part of me felt that I am violating their personal space by going there to see them. While I find their unique cultural practice very interesting, I acknowledge that we are all just human beings and they are not a tourist attraction.
As a traveler, I wanted to capture every moment. I wanted to make photos of the village, of the locals, of the long neck women. I wanted to make photos with them as well. Somehow, it felt easier to do it in other places. It felt normal to do everywhere else. But for some reason, I felt a built guilty doing it here. It is their home and I didn’t want to violate it.
We first walked around the village, contemplating if we should just leave or at least try to feel the environment around us. I was probably unnecessarily overthinking everything. With all the adventure we went through to go there, we’ve come in to terms that we should stay. Just be polite and respectful.
Walking around, we got to see some shops, houses and livestock in the village. The land that we saw within and around the village seemed a bit dried up as well, with grass either non-existent or brown.It was a very hot day and having no means to ask around, I found it hard to imagine the lack of water supply when the dry season comes up.
Around the village are shops with products such as brass coils, figurines, memorabilia, and scarves created by the locals. We thought that it would be best to buy something and perhaps, we would just ask them if we could make photos. However, as much as we wanted to, “Us” being budget and luggage conscious in our travels, we realized we couldn’t afford to buy any product that would be of no immediate use for us.
Local shops with products made and sold by the long neck women
We got there by ourselves, without a guide, trying our hardest to just be. We wanted to not feel like strangers, but evidently we were. We tried. We were very restricted in communication and relied only on hand signals and gestures. I wanted to ask questions, tell stories, and say how grateful I am for being there, for them allowing us strangers to visit them.
But it was impossible. They don’t even understand the few Burmese words that we spoke of.
I found comfort in extending our best efforts to chat as we stopped by several shops.
Perhaps, it was I who needed to feel comfortable being a stranger and not the other way around.
We made photos with some of them and decided that it would be best to leave a donation instead of not doing anything at all. It was one of those occasions where I wished I had something to give to the kids instead. But I was empty handed and a small donation was the least that I could do.
Brass coil worn by a local and by myself (the woman made me wear it!)
Some of them naturally made me wear a brass coil as we stopped along. Talk about fitting in. It was very very heavy.
Another local woman even had an attire in her shop ready to be worn by visitors. She first dressed me with the ring and then put on the rest of the attire. I think I could also pass as a Burmese.
Myself(left) and a local (right). The local made me wear the traditional clothing and the brass ring on my neck
With a local family
Making a donation was a bit conflicting for me at first. Mostly because I don’t money to influence how tourists/visitors would be perceived by the locals just as how they are perceived in other places all over the world. I might be assuming to much, but I don’t want them to come to a point where they would exploit their cultural identity just so they could earn money.
But on the other hand, the products in their shops were made with the hope that visitors would find their way to their village and perhaps, support with a piece or two. I reckon that it’s a way of telling the world that visitors are more than welcome to stop by.
They, together with majority of the poor, could really use some help to uplift their lives. With the ever changing world around us, they should not be left behind.
Nowadays, some of the women of the tribe do not wear the rings anymore and have broken the tradition. Perhaps, in order to adapt to the evolving modern world. Roads are also being built around the remote village of Panpet.
One day, everything will be different. I truly hope that when these changes come, it is all for the betterment of the locals. It’s all for the best.
With a local family