19 January 2013
The Kayan are a minority people of Burma who fled to the Thai border area due to conflict in the 1980s and 1990s with the military regime in Burma. Three of their villages are today open to tourists, with entry fees apparently allowing them to require no financial assistance. Before arriving, I was afraid that they would nonetheless look like human zoos with hundreds of Westerners – and soon me – shoving their cameras into the faces of jaded villagers.
My experience was mixed: yes, many tourists were taking portraits (and actually very few Westerners among them – perhaps because it does take at least 6 hours, 270 km, and more than 2,000 road curves in the mountains to get there from Chiang Mai – a distance which I covered on a scooter, an experience in itself), but the open section of the village was in effect a short stretch of small traditional shops serviced by long-necked women, some of whom I had doubts whether they were actually Burmese and not Thais trying to make some easy money by selling (factory-made?) goods... which would add more to some of the existing controversy surrounding those villages, while some women have in recent years started to remove their rings.
Anyway, “long-necked” is not an accurate description since the appearance of a longer neck is caused by the clavicle being deformed and the collar bone being pushed down under the weight of the brass. It’s not exactly clear why women are wearing them, perhaps a combination of appearing less attractive to other tribes or more attractive to fellow tribesmen by having a slender neck, or to symbolically protect them from tiger bites.
Thinking back, there were three highlights to this curious but still interesting visit which required, to arrive to the village, driving slowly (with my non-SUV scooter) across a dozen water channels that thought funny to pass through the road, while avoiding being crushed by elephants (signs do warn not to honk...):
1) the surprising sight of a Catholic wooden church at the top of a mud hill (for some – very – strange reason reminding me of the Little House on the Prairie my sister watched) – I since read that Italian missionaries had converted most Kayan villagers in the 19th century;
2) the gentle and kind gaze of some of the older Kayan women, and the pretty and welcoming faces of younger ones, which I hope I captured a little bit in my pictures;
3) the laughs when trying to build a rapport with a young female seller by getting out my deck of playing cards and performing a simple magic trick. Even if I’m not sure she understood the trick (oh well...), she could no longer (well, I had to also show her my kind, innocent eyes) refuse to give me the discounted price I was negotiating ;-) (saving $2, shame on me but I can't help but adjust to local prices – need to practice my negotiation skills if I plan on retiring there in a few weeks).