'Long-necked' women to attract tourists

A 76-year-old tribeswoman named Monu at her home in Panpet village in Myanmar's Kayah state.
A 76-year-old tribeswoman named Monu at her home in Panpet village in Myanmar's Kayah state. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PANPET (Myanmar) • Wearing a stack of bronze neck coils - a sign of beauty for her Kayan tribe - Ms Mu Par dreams of a time when all "long-necked" women can return to Myanmar from Thailand, where they are a tourist attraction.

For years, Kayan women and girls have been driven across the border by poverty and conflict to earn around 3,000 baht (S$115) a month posing in holidaymakers' pictures in purpose-built Thai villages decried by rights campaigners as "human zoos".

Now, several have returned to their remote native Panpet area in Kayah state, Myanmar, with an entrepreneurial plan to reverse the flow of departures, as their once junta-ruled homeland emerges from decades of solitude.

Ms Mu Par came home a few months ago, having saved enough money after working for 14 years in Thailand. She now runs one of a dozen neat little shacks selling locally made wooden dolls, scarves and individual bronze neck rings. Lining up a neat row of handmade "long-neck dolls" at a new craft market, she hopes to provide for her four children, aged between four and 15.

"In Myanmar, my children can attend school and also I am happy to be among my relatives," said the 33-year-old, as a handful of tourists milled through the area.

Much of Kayah state was off limits to foreigners. The authorities now hope the region's emerald hills will become the country's next top travel destination.

Ms Mu Par and her neighbours from Panpet's cluster of five hamlets grouped together to build the market. They share the profits from the 5,000-kyat (S$5.70) visitor entrance fee.

From as young as five years old, Kayan girls are given up to 10 neck rings to wear. They then add a new one approximately every year until adulthood. The practice, which gives them a giraffe-like appearance, painfully compresses their shoulders and collarbones, rather than actually stretching their necks.

A grown woman can wear as many as 25 rings, weighing a total of 5kg. A local legend suggests women began wearing the rings to protect themselves against tigers, which once roamed the region in large numbers and bit the necks of their prey.

Men in the village also used to wear face-shaped masks on the back of their heads, in a bid to ward off tiger ambushes, according to local people, although the practice has since died out. Fewer women now wear the coils, which force them to keep looking straight ahead.

Families often cannot afford the costly, handcrafted rings, while many young girls feel they are an impediment to getting a job outside of their region. The women can remove their rings with the help of a specialist, and their shoulders and collarbones can eventually return to normal, depending on the age when they are taken off.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline ''Long-necked' women to attract tourists'. Print Edition | Subscribe