Like India, Myanmar is a diverse country, especially in terms of tribes and landscapes. Amongst the many states of Myanmar, state of Kayah is the smallest of all but has a lot of to offer culturally. Within the span of 48 hours, we explored the lifestyle of the famed ‘Long-Neck Tribe’ and the ‘Kayah’ tribe as well.
While looking up on the internet about the places to visit in Myanmar, I estimated to meet at least one of the long-neck ladies because some of them sit in the workshop areas on the Inle lake to interact with tourists. Fortunately, we met so many of them in their village later, which was a more authentic way of learning about them rather than just capturing them at major touristy locations.
Although there are 9 different tribal groups (Kayah, Kayan, Kayaw/Pre, Kawyaw-Manu Manaw, Geba, Paku and Yintale) in the Kayah state (historically known as Karenni State), I was eager to meet the Kayan woman and know what exactly compels them to choose this lifestyle for themselves and why they still choose to do it.
INLE TO LOIKAW TOWN
We had to change states while moving from Inle lake (Shan state) Zone to Loikaw town which was in the state of Kayah. Yet again, utilising the help desk at our hotel in Nyaung Shwe, we booked a sharing sumo/taxi for ourselves, locals also call it minibus. And this time we were not required to travel overnight since the distance between Inle to Loikaw was just 3.5 hours.
The landscape gradually changed to barren and harsh with lower hills in the background.
Inle to Loikaw Mini Bus: 12000 Kyat/ 9.5 USD (3.5 hours journey)
As soon as we reached the interiors of the town, locals one-by-one started getting down on their respective stops. Everytime the door was opened, we used to buy oursleves some snacks like chilli mango or small servings of tofu mixed salad.
These are the moments when you realise why your journey is as important as the destination. The crux of local lifestyle lies in the journey.
VISITING THE PANPET VILLAGE
In Pan Pet, a village 34.5 km (44 min) away from the town of Loikaw, resides a group of ethnic people who are also called as ‘the long neck tribe’ or ‘giraffe woman’ by the world. The village has five divisions under it.
These Kayan women will greet you with the warmest smiles. Their metal rings around the neck are a proud object to showcase age-old traditions and an independent will to look even more beautiful.
Where is the long neck Kayan tribe originally from?
As per internet sources, I came to know that many such villages in Northern Thailand feel like living museums where these long-neck women are treated as objects in a zoo. Visiting these women in Thailand is another experience and meeting them here in Burma is another because in Thailand they are treated as Burmese refugees. Some people have actually managed to return to their native land in Myanmar from Thailand but for many it is still a far-fetched dream.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case in Myanmar. Each Lady was busy in her own house, working around daily chores or looking at the business in her shop in the nearby souvenir market.
Here you decide as a traveller. Where to contribute to the community, if the way you are doing is right and if some false practises are being used to capitalise the local community or their nature? Think before you join the herd.
You will also find a few old ladies putting new metal rings around their granddaughter’s necks. This indicates that a few from the younger generation are keen on taking the tradition forward. Though still this practice is categorised as diminishing since the number of girls willing to continue it is far lesser than the ones who don’t want it.
How to Reach the PAN PET Village?
Kayah, as a state, opened for tourism recently in 2013. For 50 years, it remained isolated and was being run under the military rule. Hence its infrastructural development greatly suffered.
Pan Pet village is 2-hour drive away from Loikaw. You will have to book a private taxi with a local guide to reach this village. Guide will also arrange for permits which are required to visit these villages.
MEETING THE KAYAN WOMEN
Aunty ‘Daw Mu Htan’ had glittery eyes and warmest heart. Apart from knowing ways to entertain people who came to meet her, she looked keen on learning new things too. Our guide told us that she was 66 and has been wearing the brass rings since she was a little girl. Young girls start wearing these rings from the tender age of 5 and on every birthday, another ring keeps on getting added.
We taught her ‘mazedaar daaru’ (tasty alcohol) while she was offering us rice wine. She later sang one of traditional songs with a few chords that she played skilfully on her little guitar.
Aunty did manage to dress up us girls as well. The metallic necklace between our chins and collar bones made us realize that one needs a big heart and huge respect for old traditions to just keep following them all lifelong. I felt all choked up wearing these rings. I felt my collar bones and shoulders were being pushed down and this was the anatomical reason to these women’s apparently visible elongated necks.
Not only around neck, womenfolk also wear these rings below their knees.
There is lock behind the rings which can be released during the night to let the neck breathe a little while sleeping. But most of the time, due to constant support by these rings to the neck, the muscles of the neck become weak to an extent where Kayan women find it difficult to hold their neck upright without the rings. So basically, once the rings are on, they become a part of their body.
Aunty told us about her fear of elevators and how she felt like an animal in a zoo whenever she visited big cities like Yangon. This instantly reminded me of similar scenarios in my country India. People with strong ethnic features are treated tad differently.
Read about my interaction with the Apatani Tribe from Ziro Valley (India) here
In fact, in 1935, some Kayan women used to tour around the United Kingdom as a part of circuses.
Ankita requested aunty to make a tiny metal ring model as a souvenir for her braid and aunty was happy to oblige once communicated by our guide and further by a village guide.
This whole time our conversation translation had 3 levels. We spoke in English to our company guide who further spoke to the village guide in Burmese and finally the message reached the Kayan lady in her own local dialect through the village guide.
But what is the reason behind this ancient tradition?
People say that this region was home to tigers decades ago. And to protect the vulnerable body areas where the tiger could bite, the woman started wearing these metal rings. And gradually the self-defence mechanism must have translated into a beauty ritual in which women are seen more attractive with slender necks.
It has also been speculated that Kayan women wear these coils to looks like dragons which is an important figure in their culture.
Long before tourism was introduced in the state of Kayah, handicrafts occupied a major chunk in the life of these tribes. And still, they practice to continue it. We were taken to the house of another Kayan lady who showed us the art of scarf weaving. Her husband was busy making utensils out of bamboo and straw.
There is a traditional market just at the exterior of the village from where you can buy these souvenir items and can support the local community directly.
Here locals practice Christianity, Buddhism and Animism. And the ladies that we met, in fact showed us signs of it. A wooden rooster was kept in their living area. Majority people in the village that we visited followed animism and believe in spirits. During ‘Kayhtoboe’ ritual, they offer animals to the spirits as food in exchange for protection.
We were also taken to an open ground where totem poles were erected. On further enquiring with our guide about them, it was evident that those had something to do with the spirits and animistic beliefs of the people. The shaman of the village uses chicken bones to do predictions.
Kay Htein Boe
It is the most famous Kayan festival which commemorates the birth of the world. It is celebrated for three days in end of March to the start of April. During this, villagers gather around a cut-down tree trunk which they burn and then pray for better crops next season.
Kay Htoe Boe festival/Kayah Totem Festival (April or May)
The festival is a spectacle to watch because of the sky-soaring totem poles.
The tour was arranged by Beyond Boundaries, a Myanmar based travel company.
San Boon and Han Thaw Khu villages can also be visited to meet the Kayan tribe.
HTA NEE LA LEH (TANILALE) VILLAGE
The village has got Kayah group of people living here. These people are Sino-Tibetan and constitute the largest group in Kayah State. What distinguishes them from the rest of the ethnic groups is their red and black traditional attire with women seen donning lacquer rings around their knees.
We were shown the process of spinning the cotton on spinning wheel and then coating them with layers of lacquer.
Aunty looked nothing less than a Rockstar. She plucked the strings of a wooden guitar. Uncle played ‘Kaloe’ or the bamboo guitar. I felt there was nothing in this world that could break his rhythmic concentration. He kept on plucking the same strings one after the other.
Apart from these, the Kayah tribe is also involved in producing a variety of other musical instruments too. Frog drums, a mushroom-shaped instrument made in bronze and others are used especially during festivals.
Uncle showed us his methods of hunting using the wooden bow and arrow that he made himself. The amount of talent that we got to see within 2 days was mind blowing.
COMMUNITY-BASED TOURISM IN KAYAH STATE
The sense of community is really strong within these tribes. Fostering this relationship further, the travel industry here started getting organised under the Community Based tourism Initiative (CBT) launched by the International Trade Centre (ITC) in 2014.
An inclusive tourism approach is being followed in these villages to benefit the local communities in a sustainable manner. ITC trains these village folks to make wooden figurines, metal souvenirs and handicrafts which can be sold to tourists.
Growth in the tourism sector in Myanmar and Kayah specially has made the return of many Kayan women from Thailand possible since many of them now see prospects of earning something within the boundaries of their native land.
local community guide fee: 5000 Kyat/ 3.90 USD (half day)
8000 Kyat / 6.5 USD (full day)
Make sure you don’t leave the village without tasting the potent rice wine (khaung yay) or getting involved in making and tasting spicy Kayah sausages.
THINGS TO DO IN KAYAH STATE
Kyat Gu/Yarsu Ku/Kyet or the Cave of Spirits
The cave is located 15 km east of Loikaw. In this limestone cave, broken wooden boxes or 15 feet long coffins were found. They now lie empty in the corners of the cave and different people will tell you different stories about their existence. The locals use bat faeces which is found in abundance inside the cave as fertilizer.
Aung Tha Pyay Cave
This 1000 ft long cave with 10 sitting Buddha statues can be found near Htee Se Kha Waterfall and is 20 mins drive away from Loikaw town. You will be able to spot some Macaque monkeys around this area.
Taung Kwe Pagoda or Broken Mountain
Situated on top of Thirri Mingala Hill, the cluster of pagodas provide a gorgeous panoramic view of the city.
Seven Stages Lake/ Kan Khon Na Sint
Here you can enjoy the natural wonders of Loikaw’s countryside. And this is the same lake where the mythical figures Kinnare-Kinnara used to take bath.
Kayah National Museum
Here you will see mannequins wearing the traditional tribal dresses and a rustic collection of musical instruments, baskets, ancient muskets. It is not a must-to-do-thing in Kayah but can be definitely added if you have some extra time in your hands.
Ngwe Taung Dam
The damn area is located on the way De Maw Soe market from Loikaw. It is a great spot to relax and breathe in some fresh air. From the dam area, you will be able to spot the three famous mountains, known as ruby, silver and gold mountains, as per the locals.
De Maw Soe Market
In this market you will be able to spot all the tribes of the Kayah state who come to sell their local produce. In case you miss out on tasting rice wine (Khaung-Yay) in one of the villages, you will be able to buy some here. All the famous Kayah delicacies can be found in this market. It is located 30 mins from Loikaw.
Best Timings: 6 am to 10 am (open only on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday)
Naung Yar Lake
This is another place where you can find the locals. People come here for their daily strolls.
Htee Sel Khar Waterfall
This waterfall is (25 km) 45 min drive away from Loikaw.
PLACES TO STAY IN LOIKAW
This hostel is the first in the town and also in the whole state of Kayah. It is a perfect resting place for backpackers looking for rooms in a budget.
Other Places Stay in Loikaw
- Loikaw Princess Hotel
- Kayan Golden Sky Motel
- Loikaw Lodge
- Kayah Resort
- Hotel Loikaw
- Min Ma Haw guesthouse
PLACES TO EAT IN LOIKAW
Loikaw Night Market
We used to eat our dinner at the night market as usual. It gets set up daily by the Pilu River. Although this was one of the most basic night markets that we came across in Myanmar and we relished the few vegetarian options that were available for us.
Here at IORA, we were served a typical Burmese platter, vegetarian though. It had white and red rice, bamboo shoot, potato, tea leaf salad, corn and leafy vegetable.
Apart from these you can also try Loikaw specialities where most dishes are made out of rice paste with different fillings. Myae oh myi shae is another popular dish made out of noodles, tofu and vegetables.
Other Eateries to Try
- Keinnayar Nandaw Sausage and Wine
- Kaung Kyaw Hein Cafe
- Golden Lion Restaurant
- Loikaw City Restaurant
- Ko Moe Kayan restaurant
- Mingalar Kayah restaurant
- Pho Khwar restaurant, Pilu river bank
- Shwe Ya Ti Myanmar restaurant
HOW TO REACH LOIKAW?
Loikow is located in eastern Myanmar and can be accessed from various other states. We travelled to Loikaw form Inle via a mini bus which leaves at 8 am and reaches Loikaw within 4-5 hours.
Another way to travel from Inle to Loikaw is via a boat ride till Pekong boat pier. From here a minivan or a taxi can be availed till the town.
MANDALAY TO LOIKAW
From Kywel Sel Kan Highway Station in Mandalay, you will be able to get a bus to Loikaw.
Mandalay to Loikaw Bus: 13500 Kyat/10.5 USD
YANGON TO LOIKAW
Regular buses ply from the capital of Burma to Loikaw in Kayah State. In Yangon, you will get buses from Taunggyi (for local buses) or Aung Mingalar Highway Station (for tourist Volvos).
Yangon to Loikaw Bus: 13000 Kyat/10 USD (16-hour journey)
Additionally, flights can also be availed from Yangon to Loikow.
Taxi from Airport to Loikaw Town: 3000 kyat/2.34 USD
On the Yangon to Mandalay train line, there are trains from Thazi till Loikaw. It departs at 3 am and drop at 9:45 pm in Loikow.
First class train tickets: 3,800 Kyat/2.97 USD
Second class train tickets: 2,900 Kyat/2.26 USD
THING TO REMEMBER
- Kayah has been recently opened to tourism thus lacks on most of the touristy facilities and amenities that you will find in other states of Myanmar. You cannot rent an e-bike here. But you can move around on cycles in Loikaw or use shared/personal taxi services and tuk-tuks.
Bicycle rent charges: 5000 kyat/day/3.90 USD
Half-a-day Taxi charges: 32000 Kyat/25 USD
- It is mandatory to acquire permits for tourists in order to go outside Kayah. So, you will have to arrange for a tour guide who will take care of the permits.
- Due to the recent conflicts in this region, there are still activated landmines in the exteriors of the state. Do not enter those restricted premises for any kind of adventure of documentation.
- Often the word ‘Padaung’ is used for Kayan womenfolk. It is a word from the Shan state and isn’t considered good by the people of Kayah.
- It is advisable to take a local guide with you to these villages since tribal people neither speak English nor Burmese. They communicate in their own dialect.
- The floor of all the caves remains wet and even slippery in the rainy seasons (June to October). Make sure you carefully walk with the help of a flashlight.
- Do not argue on local believes, traditions and superstitions in any of the villages. Here people take their belief system very seriously.
HOW TO GET A VISA TO MYANMAR FROM INDIA?
Currently, visa on arrival facility is not available to Indian tourists coming to Myanmar. But eVisa makes the process easy. We spent 3600 INR (48 USD) on a tourist visa which had a 28-day validity.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO MYANMAR FROM INDIA?
IMPHAL (MANIPUR) – MOREH BORDER (INDIA) –TAMU BORDER (MYANMAR) – MANDALAY
Indo-Myanmar border crossing is an experience that is meant to be taken for a backpacker but due to unstable border condition in December 2019 at Manipur side, we chose flights as an alternative.
The other border crossing that is open from Indian side is RIHKHAWDAR -ZOWKHAWTAR in MIZORAM.
Both passport and e-visa will be required while crossing by road.
We got a good deal at 12000 INR (160 USD) for Kolkata (India) – Yangon – Kolkata flight. Mandalay as a landing city from Kolkata seemed expensive in comparison to Yangon.
For other countries, flying till Bangkok and then crossing the Myanmar border by road is the cheapest option currently.