The Kayan people of Burma (Myanmar), also known as the Padaung, are refugees who now reside in Thailand. They are proud of their unique cultural heritage, but desire to one day return to their home and fields in the Kayan and Shan states of Burma.
While historically they are known as great agriculturalists, they are most known for unique dress of the women. While the men dress in normal pants and short coats, the women wear elaborate brass rings around their necks and on their legs. Around their neck the brass rods grow from 20 to 25 thick, depending upon the woman’s age. They do not so much stretch the neck as they suppress growth of the clavicle, giving the appearance of elongating the neck. It is considered a mark of beauty.
There are a couple of theories as to how the wearing of brass rings on the neck originated, although the women themselves cannot say with certainty. One theory originated in Kayan mythology. A beautiful dragon with a long neck was said to have been impregnated by the wind, giving birth to the Kayan people. The more practical theory surmises that the practice started as an effort to protect the women from tigers, which were a great danger in the Burmese jungle. The brass rings protected their necks from tiger attacks and have stayed on as a symbol of beauty.
While there has been much positive press about Burma’s move towards democracy in the past couple of years, there are still countless numbers of internally displaced people and refugees who crossed the border into Thailand, including the Kayan (Padaung). The Burmese Army continues to battle with minority peoples who are resisting them. While it’s outside the scope of this blog to detail the oppression of the minority peoples, you can learn more about the situation here.
There was an ethical question of whether you should even visit the Kayan people, who live in the Mae Hong Son district of Northwestern Thailand. As I was hoping to do a story on the refugee situation of the Burmese I felt I had no choice but to do so. Eschewing the normal tourist routes, as I am wont to do, I decided to visit on my own terms (aren’t there thousands of us who think we’re doing that). I decided to rent a motorbike and enjoy the ride through the countryside, pay the fee to enter the refugee village, knowing that my baht (the local currency) would go more directly to the local people. It is their only means of support as they are not allowed to own land in Thailand. While there were some who were clearly tired of cameras, I found that being on my own allowed for some good interactions and found that most of the people enjoyed when I asked them questions about their lives. I found that spending time with the people, and buying a few products from them, and exchanging some smiles made the trip more than worthwhile.
What follows are images made from Pai to Mae Hong Son and then the refugee villages themselves.
Elephants were originally used in Thailand to clear land that would be used for agriculture. Due to large deforestation the practice was outlawed and elephants are now used almost exclusively for the tourism industry. Below are two views of an elephant keeper washing his elephant in the Pai River after a day’s work and him riding the elephant back to the forest afterwards.
Riding on a motorbike I took in several scenes of the agricultural life around Pai. Pai is a great place to take a break if you’ve been traveling for a while, as it’s laid back and you can sit by a pool and stare at rice paddies all day.
Leaving Pai on motorbike one soon find themselves winding along roads that rise high into the mountains where the air becomes increasingly cold. Soon you begin to find the colorful dress of hill tribes. The following image shows a Lisu woman talking on her cellphone during lunch. She’s eating a plate of rice, pork and chili peppers.
150 kms later I arrived in Mae Hong Son to visit with the Kayan People.
Thanakha, a traditional painting of the face used to cool and refresh the skin, is a clear sign that one is meeting with Burmese people.Follow @nomadruss