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Visit to Long neck tribe at Huai Suea Thao village

Huai Suea Thao village and the tradition of the long neck

Surely, the mystery of travelling to an unknown destination is like learning a new language. I read many dictionaries, books and even “Learning Languages for Dummies”. After mastering a few short sentences, you locate a native speaker to practise speaking and start parroting your rehearsed lines. As your sparring partner stares at your monologue, you don’t know how your accents have turned out. Whether they understood what you said correctly or whether you made a fool of yourself by mispronouncing niceties as insults!

I am writing this from one’s thatched roof-hut on stilts inside Huai Suea Thao village on the outskirts of Mae Hong Song district on the Thai-Burmese border. Located on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking several mountain streams that plunge down to meet the Pai River that flows through Mae Hong Son. I am surrounded by mist covered evergreen coniferous pine forests at an altitude of 5000 feet above sea level. However, the natural beauty of the surroundings is breathtaking. Teak, pine, conifer, oak and birch trees stretching their arms as far as the eye can see cover the entire landscape.

The buzzing sound of the flowing mountain streams and waterfalls is soft music to one’s ears throughout the night. I woke up at dawn, awakened by the natural alarm calls of wild roosters living on the edges of the jungle. Even in the twilight hours in early November, one can see the mist hanging heavily on the mountain tops. I also came across a few scattered clouds that have descended on my hut made entirely of palm leaves, coir and bamboos. There is no electricity in this tribal village populated by the Kayan tribe who have lived in these forests for centuries.

Huai Suea Thao village

Every year two more rings are added

Certainly, the unique aspect about the tribe living in this village are the elongated necks of the females! After a girl child is born,the girl must wear a brass neck-ring. However, the tradition consists of adding two more rings to the girl’s neck until she is five years old. As she grows into an adult, her neck gets naturally elongated. The rings never come off. The long neck decorated with golden coloured brass rings make the Kayan women look incredibly attractive and they strut about like graceful peacocks. However, they also wear their hair in a topknot with a pointed silver pin in it and a necklace of a chain of silver coins.

Kayan girls start wearing rings at the age of four or five. As the girls get older, they add more spirals. The neck is continually stretched with more coils added each year until the length of sixteen inches (2.5 cm) is reached, though many older women have exceeded that. However, at the base of the main neck coil, married women wear a five coil winding. A complete set of neck coils worn by a grown –up woman, including the neck, knees and ankles weighs about 10 kilos!

Local Kayan women with their strong fingers wind the diameter of the brass coils. The girl after she reaches maturity will decide whether or not she wears the rings. However, this tradition has survived in this era of globalisation only because Kayan women have the greatest reverence for their mother goddess. The Kayan long-necked women do not travel outside their villages and have spent their entire life in their small communities.

elephant
Elephant

Kayan tribe life without electricity

The longneck Kayan village of Huai Suea Thao is nestled in the middle of a hill overlooking a multitude of uninhabited hills. Several small mountain streams criss-cross through these hills, providing a constant water supply for their needs. The Kayan shun contact with the outside world and are happy in their isolated existence. Language is a barrier, as their native dialect differs from Thai or even Burmese. They hand cultivate rice in their tiny fields in their back gardens. They also grow vegetables like carrots, cabbage and cauliflowers. Surely, one of the unique aspects of Kayan culture is their food habit. Because of their elongated and delicate necks, they have to be very particular about what they eat.

Lots of wild tea is drunk, without sugar or milk, to keep the effects of the cold away. They also add crushed ginger to the tea. The Kayan are extremely hard working and do not rear cows or bullocks. They plow the rice fields digging everything by hand. The mountainous terrain, the fast-flowing mountain streams and ancient Kayan myths have combined to ensure the absence of cattle. This means that their diet is rich in grains and vegetables, eliminating milk and milk products.

Music and dance are a way of life for Kayan. As there is no electricity, all the Kayan gather under a tree at dusk, followed by lots of singing and dancing. Their food habits are frugal. The dinner is only rice soup washed down with a few glasses of home-made rice beer.

long neck woman

Long neck woman

Brass rings are passed down from generation to generation

The Kayan tribe call themselves “Ka Kaung” which loosely translates to “people who live on top of the hill”. They are sometimes called long neck “karens” or giraffe women because of the custom of encasing their neck in brass coils. The tradition of this tribe is that when the girl is between five and nine years old, to rub her neck with traditional herbs submerged in coconut milk. At that age they also place the first bronze ring on her.

Adding the next set of rings after two years, the girl then every year will continue to win a new set until she gets married. Below the chin, they wear a square cotton pad decorated with beads. These brass rings are centuries old and handed down over generations, passing from mother to daughter to grand-daughters. Kayan women also have two set of leg rings, one above the knee and one below, but this does not seem to hamper their daily work. 

They say that Kayan women have descended from the ‘Goddess Mother Dragon’ (“Ka Kwe Bu Pe). The women wear these rings to give respect and tribute to the deity and to resemble a veritable dragon. As Kayan myth goes, when the grand-daughters Mu Don and Mu Dan visited Ka Kwe Bu Pe, they were presented with winding gold coils which they wrapped around their hands, legs and neck! Kayan people celebrate the “Kan Khwan” ceremony, when all Kayans gather in celebration with lots of folk dances and traditional music and singing. These community gatherings often get Kayan from all far-flung villages to come together in a mood of festivity and happiness.

long neck
Long neck girl

Conclusion

There are other villages on the border between Thailand and Briamnia, where you can find something Neck Kayan. These villages are Huay Pu Keng, Kayan Tha Yar Hsu Htaut and Nai Soi. All these villages are located inside thick coniferous forests. They are accessible either by boat or after trekking on foot for long hours.

In short, if you want to know more about the travel experiences of the author, click on ZeNLP.

However, if you want to know more about the culture of othe countries look at our Blog. 

Author: Murli Menon (ZeNLP)

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