Murli Menon in conversation with Prittle Prattle News
Long neck tribe at Huai Suea Thao village on the Thai Burmese border.. The mystery of traveling to an unknown destination is like learning a new language. One reads numerous dictionaries, books, and even “Learning Languages for Dummies.” After mastering a few short sentences, you locate a native speaker to practice speaking and start parroting your rehearsed lines. As your sparring partner stares blankly at your monologue, you do not know how your accents have turned out to be and if what you said was what was understood or whether you made a complete fool of yourself by mispronouncing niceties as insults! One is 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. This village is nestled on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking several mountain streams that rush down to meet the Pai river flowing through Mae Hong Son. One is surrounded on all sides by mist-covered evergreen coniferous pine forests at an altitude of 5000 feet above sea level. The natural beauty of the surroundings is breathtaking. Every bit of the landscape is covered with teaks, pines, conifers, oaks, and birches stretching their arms as far as eyes can see.
The buzzing sound of the flowing mountain streams and waterfalls are soft music to one’s ears throughout the night. One wakes 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. One also comes across a few scattered clouds that have descended on your 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. The most unique aspect of the tribe living in this village is the elongated necks of the females! After a girl child is born, she is made to wear a brass neck-ring. Every year two more rings are added to her neck till she is five. As she grows into an adult her neck gets naturally elongated as the rings are never removed. The long neck decorated with golden colored brass rings makes the Kayan women look incredibly attractive and they strut about like graceful peacocks. They also wear their hair in a topknot with an appointed 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. More spirals are added as the girls grow older. The neck is continually stretched with more oils added each year till the length of sixteen inches is reached, though many older women have greatly exceeded that. 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! The diameter of the brass coils is winded by local Kayan women with their strong fingers. Whether to wear the rings or not is left entirely to the girl after she attains maturity. However, this tradition has survived in this era of globalization only because Kayan women have the greatest reverence for their mother goddess. The Kayan long-necked women do not travel outside their villages and spend their entire lives in their small communities.
The longneck Kayan village of Huai Suea Thao is nestled in the middle of a hill overlooking many 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 is different from Thai or even Burmese. They hand cultivate rice in their tiny fields in their back gardens. Vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and cauliflowers are also grown. One of the unique aspects of Kayan culture is their food habit. Due to 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. Crushed ginger is added to the tea. The kayaks are extremely hard working and do not rear cows or bullocks. Plowing the rice-fields is done by digging by hand. The mountainous terrain, the fast-flowing mountain streams, and ancient Kayan myths have combined to ensure cattle’s absence. This means milk and milk products are cut off from their diet, rich in cereals and vegetables.Music and dance are a way of life for kayans. As there is no electricity, all the kayans gather under a tree at dusk followed by lots of singing and dancing, Their food habits are frugal, and dinner is no more than rice soup washed down with a few glasses of homemade rice beer.
The Kayan tribe calls 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. When a girl is aged between five and nine, her neck is rubbed with traditional herbs dipped in coconut milk, and the first brass ring is fitted. After two years, the next set of rings is added, and every year after that, she gains a new location until she is married. Below the chin, they wear a square cotton pad decorated with beads. These brass rings are said to be centuries old and handed down over generations, passing from mother to daughter to grand-daughters. Kayan women also have two sets of leg rings, one above the knee and one below, but this does not seem to hamper their daily work in any way.
Kayan women are said to have descended from the ‘Goddess Mother Dragon’ (“Ka Kwe Bu Pe) and women wear these rings to give respect and tribute to the deity and to resemble a real 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 that 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 kayans from all far-flung villages to come together in a mood of festivity and happiness.
The other villages on the Thai-Burmese border where one can find long-necked kayans include Hwa Phu Keng, Kayan Tha Yar Hsu Htaut, and Noi Soi. All these villages are located inside thick coniferous forests and are accessible either by boat or after trekking on foot for long hours. The nearest international airport to reach Chiangmai is the Suvarnabhoomi International Airport in Bangkok. There are several options for Indian tourists to get to Huay Psai Tao from Bangkok.
- Bangkok to Chiangmai (air/bus/train) (overnight stay)
- Chiangmai to Mae Hong Son (bus/mini-bus/shared-taxi) (overnight stay)
- Mae Hong Son to Huay Psai Tao (tuk-tuk/ motorcycle taxi)
By bus: The easiest and most popular way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is by bus. This 600 km. The trip takes 12 hours. There are three bus terminals in Bangkok, namely Northern, Southern, and Eastern. All buses are first-class air-conditioned with pushback seats. The bus fare from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs 350 Baht for ordinary buses to 550 Baht for super-deluxe buses. Buses to Chiangmai leave Bangkok’s Northern bus terminal. Mae Hong Son is a six-hour drive from Chiangmai. Buses leave at 11:00 a.m. from Chiangmai bus Station to Mae Hong Son. The one-way mini-bus journey from Chiangmai to Mae Hong Son costs 250 baht. Huay Psai Tao is a 20 km. Drive over rough roads from Mae Hong Son. Motorcycle taxis should not charge more than 200 baht during the offseason. Taxis can cost upwards of 400 Baht for the same. Time taken to reach Huay Psai Tao from Mae Hong Son should not exceed 60 minutes by bike or car.
Night buses operate from Bangkok to Chiangmai. Buses leave Bangkok at 9:00 p.m. and arrive at Chiangmai at 6:00 a.m. The one-way ticket is priced at 550 Baht. Local overnight buses from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son are best avoided.
Several airlines operate direct flights from Bangkok to Chiangmai. But the cheapest option for budget-conscious Indian tourists is to take the 12:50 p.m. Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Chiangmai. If booked two weeks in advance, the flight fare should not exceed 1800 Baht one way. The flight duration is approximately 60 minutes. Air Asia is a budget airline whose foods are incredibly affordable even if booked at the last minute. However, Indian tourists who are sure about their itinerary in Thailand can book Air Asia tickets using an international credit card in India and get early bird promotional fares starting at 1500 Baht!
At Chiangmai: Red Brick Guesthouse Chiang Mai is a budget guest-house whose architecture reflects the name! It is a favorite of Israeli backpackers. During the low season (July to October) a standard double room costs approximately 350 Baht exclusive of American breakfast. The rooms are basic, bathrooms are clean with hot water showers. A tiny restaurant offers only rice soup and black tea for strict vegans. However fresh fruits, nuts, and soymilk can be obtained from the neighborhood convenience store which is a short walk away. All significant landmarks are walking distance from this homely guest house. The to and fro airport transfer costs 120 Baht each and transfer to bus-station by tuk-tuk is bargainable and should not put you back by more than 80 Baht.
At Mae Hong Son: River View Lodge at Mae Hong Son offers clean rooms with small bathrooms and cold showers for 150 baht and is located 5 minutes away from the lake and is on the banks of the Mae Hong Son river. This family-run guest house has just 6 rooms, so a phone call from Chiang Mai bus station before one board the mini-bus will ensure a place is waiting for you on arrival.
At Huai Suea Thao: A few local villagers offer homestays with basic accommodation and food at 100 Baht per day. One gets to experience their hospitality and local cuisine. Vegans will relish the freshly steamed rice with wild bamboo shoots and green beans cooked over a traditional Kayan earthen stove. Bamboo mats and traditionally woven quilts are provided in a thatched hut made of bamboo and straw. Basic bathrooms and toilets are in the backyard of the house.
At Chiangmai: A few small eating joints serving Thai vegetarian cuisine can be found around the market. Farm fresh custard apples are available at 40 Baht per kilo at the Chiangmai market. Tropical fruits like papaya, pineapples, and pomelos are available at most fruit-shops.
At Mae Hong Son: Freshly steamed vegetables in ginger sauce with steamed rice are the choice for vegans at the Coffee Shop near the lake. Many stalls selling roasted bananas, sweet potatoes, and corn can be found in the evenings around the lake.
At Huai Suea Thao: Rice soup with wild bamboo-shoots and homegrown green beans is a local Kayan delicacy that is as tasty as its description. Vegans are offered small bananas from the kitchen garden. Roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes are available on request. Kayans do not rear cattle, and locally grown tea is served black and drunk several cups at a time to keep the mist, fog, and cold at bay.
The creation myth of the Kayan says that the eternal creator created the world God Phu Kabukathin assisted by two creator deities Phikahao and Kabukabhan and their three goddesses namely La Maan, La Taon, and La Nan. The goddess La Maan created heaven and fire, La Taon created trees and plants and earth, and La Nan created man, animals, and water. The primordial elements of fire, water, and earth were linked by a spider’s web. Thus the earth is braced to the sun, moon, and stars by an invisible spider’s web. At creation, the earth lacked density and the land and the water were fluid, so God Phu Kabukathin planted a small post in the ground. As the post grew, the earth also grew into seven inner and outer layers and it became firm. The post was named “Kan Htein Bo” in Kayan which translates to “The means of formation of the earth”.
About the Author :
Murli Menon, is a travel writer, stress management consultant and author based in Ahmedabad, India. He is the author of “ZeNLP-Learning through stories” published by The Written Word Publications, “ZeNLP-the power to succeed” published by Sage publications and “ZeNLP-the power to relax” by New Dawn Press. He can be reached at email@example.com