After a great time at Inle Lake, we were excited to head somewhere that we hadn’t heard anyone mention during our time in Myanmar: Loikaw. While Loikaw can barely be called a small town – with over 120,000 residents – it is off of the main tourist trail. Having heard about the plight of the long necked women in Thailand, we learned that they were originally from Myanmar. Some were stuck in Thailand as refugees due to armed conflict with the old military regime, and others simply went there to earn more money than they could at home. The general consensus on seeing long necked women in Thailand is that it’s a tourist trap, where the women themselves see little profit (compared to the people in charge) and are kept in substandard conditions. We felt that visiting the Kayan women in Myanmar, in their home villages was the best way to see them, so we started our seven hour minibus drive down from Inle.
Loikaw is an interesting place for tourists to visit since the government requires a permit to visit sometimes, and other times they don’t. When we visited there were no government restrictions, but very few budget accommodation options online. In southeast Asia we’ve found ourselves using booking.com and agoda.com for most of our accommodations, however in Loikaw just showing up and asking for a cheap guesthouse that will accept foreigners seems to be the better option. If you feel like spending a bit more, Kan Tar Yar Hotel was where we ended up staying due to limited options online and us being unsure of how busy the town’s hotels would be. We ended up being a few of the only guests in town, and were immediately told by a taxi driver that cheaper options are easily found.
A trip to visit the Kayan people in their villages was easily arranged at our hotel, and set us back 60,000 kyat ($40USD, there were three of us). Our driver arrived at 8am and drove us an hour and a half out of town toward the villages. Arriving on the outskirts of the villages, our driver called a local guide to show us around as part of the cab ride we had paid for. We walked a few kilometers into the village since a road was being built by hand, and was impassable by car. Our driver had us stop at a shop where the first young lady wearing brass rings around her neck smiled and motioned toward different souvenirs for us to buy.
Our guide met us there – he was a Kayan man who was born and raised in Dewkay, one of the four villages we would visit that day. He had recently returned from working in the US for the past few years, and was happy to practice his English with us. He told us that he and our driver had gone to tourism school in Loikaw together, and they were both new to the nascent industry in town. Walking along, he told us how many Kayan women will leave the village to make better wages for a few years, and come back a bit better off. We asked about the road being built and the power lines we saw up that weren’t connected to any houses.
“Our President visited this village recently, and since then a road and power lines have come in. The power will begin being run to houses next week!” he happily grinned. While we talked, he told us how much easier everyone expects life to become with paved roads and power, and how tourism should grow from the upcoming ease of access. When I asked if he was worried that tourism may ruin the village or that the culture may change, he was positive it was all for the better.
Our trip was to consist of visits to a few women who wore the brass coils around their necks, we’d see their houses and talk via our guide with them for a short while. At our first stop we noticed a small board with a picture of the lady we were visiting, and some basic facts written about her in English. It appeared that the first steps toward large scale tourism were indeed underway. Our host had a smile on her face and happily answered our questions that our guide interpreted for us.
“Do you like foreigners coming here?” was one of the questions that had been on my mind.
“Of course I do, it means my life is easier. I get to meet new people from all over the world, and if they buy anything from me then I don’t have to work so hard. I can buy the things I need from that money.”
Each house we would learn, had some souvenir to sell – from bracelets to carvings to clothing.
“Have you ever worked or lived somewhere besides here?” we asked.
She replied, “I worked in Thailand for three years. It was okay, but I like it here. I can be near my family and in my village,” she replied in a cheerful manner.
I noticed a handmade guitar on the wall, and asked if she played. Without any translation needed, she grabbed the guitar and played a really nice, short song.
We thanked her and moved on, with new questions for our guide. The basic questions of if their necks really elongate from the coils had been answered through reading beforehand. They don’t really, the coils push the collarbones and shoulders down, causing the neck to appear longer. We held coils that were at the first house and they are heavy – 8 kilograms for an adult coil. Our guide didn’t have an exact answer as to why the women wear the coils, and he asked each old woman we came across as well. Answers were always indefinite, and the general consensus was that “Tiger protection”, which is commonly quoted as a reason by outsiders, is not likely to be true. The most plausible story, both to the women we asked and to us, is that a long time ago women from the village used to get abducted and sold into slavery or abused. After dealing with the issue for some time, they decided to start wearing the coils to make themselves ugly to their assailants, and the tradition stuck since then.
“Do you have a wife or girlfriend?” we asked.
“No, I’m single, but I hope to have one later,” our guide responded.
“Do you think she’ll wear the coil around her neck?”
“No. I don’t want to date anyone who wears that,” was his answer.
He explained that women with a good education typically don’t wear the coils, and that many of the younger girls in the villages today are refusing to wear them. With more and more outsiders likely to visit in the future, the tradition of wearing the coils is less and less likely to continue as more exposure to the outside world broadens their views.
Visiting the other women was a great experience where we didn’t have to feel guilty for perpetuating a harmful practice of forcing these women (economically) to move far from their homes to make a living. The general consensus and atmosphere was that the women were happy to have foreigners come to the villages so they didn’t have to go live in foreign places to earn an income. If they could sell an inexpensive souvenir or two they were content to work the fields for their food and earn enough for the other supplies they needed.
One of the women shared a story about when she worked on the border between Myanmar and China, where she lived with ten other women in a small house. Her boss wasn’t kind, and as an adult she wasn’t able to have her own room or many belongings. She spent three years in that town, and took some pleasure in watching a TV that was in the house, but it was a dark time in her life. A pot of rice wine sat on the floor, and she made sure we each tried some, and our guide told us it gave locals energy when they needed it.
After a lunch of chicken foot soup and rice (we stuck to the rice), I headed to a nearby house where the men were playing cards and gambling. Everyone was drinking either from a large pot of rice wine or bottles with Chinese characters on them and a picture of a monkey. One other younger guy in the group could speak English, and he insisted I try the drink with the monkey picture. I asked what it was, and he claimed it was a drink from China which was whiskey mixed with monkey blood. I thought about my lack of manners at turning down the chicken feet minutes before at lunch, and took a shot of the monkey blood whiskey. The guy started laughing and was pretty happy to see a foreigner trying his drink of choice.
Outside, I asked our guide if the drink really had monkey blood inside.
“No, no it didn’t,” he assured me.
“Ahh that’s good, he was just having fun with the foreigner,” I replied, relieved.
“Well, if it had the picture of a monkey on the bottle, it might have been the one with monkey blood. I’m not sure. Maybe not?” he continued.
His English wasn’t amazing and I wasn’t as relieved anymore.
After a long day of talking with the Kayan people, it was finally time to head back to Loikaw. During our visit we saw three other tourists, and we were told that in high season some days have no tourists, some days have a dozen. While I don’t expect the charm of Loikaw to last for long, and maybe it’s already faded compared with some years back, I do think it will remain the best, most ethical way to visit a unique people before their traditions fade away.
Back in Loikaw we dropped by a restaurant we had visited the night before, which looked like a vacant lot with a few covered tables around the perimeter. We found out the restaurant is called, “Strawberry Garden Barbeque”, although there is no sign in English and a 30 centimeter by 5 centimeter sign in Myanmar (Burmese) to show the way.
We don’t typically mention restaurants we visit, but this was some of the best barbecue we’ve ever tasted. A typical way of serving BBQ in Laos and parts of northern Thailand, a bucket of burning charcoal is brought to your table, which has a hole in it. The bucket is dropped into the hole, and a metal cover with a moat around the outside is dropped on top. Water is poured into the moat, and meat and vegetables are left on the table. The quality of the meat was out of this world, the restaurant makes the most amazing strawberry shakes (hence the name of the place), and serves all different kinds of local beer, including Black Shield Stout and ABC beer. If you visit Loikaw and can find it, you’ll have to visit Strawberry Garden, which we can only describe how to find it by saying it’s between Loikaw Lodge and Kan Tar Yar Hotel.
Before leaving town, we had been told by our cab driver that we should see the super monk they had on a hill nearby. The super monk turned out to be what another guide in Kalaw called a monk with an unbroken body. Apparently when a monk is able to reach nirvana and will not be reborn, his body can stay on earth indefinitely without decaying. The super monk we had signed up to see was indeed one of Myanmar’s five (or that’s the number we were given by various people throughout the country) deceased monk bodies! The body was on top of a hill in the Three Mountain Monastery.
We were greeted at the top of a short set of stairs by a very much alive monk, who walked us a few meters to our left, and into the room where his super, dead compatriot was lying. The body of the deceased monk had been painted gold shortly after his death, and he was clearly visible since he had been placed in a glass case. The thin, golden body was certainly in good shape seeing as how the monk died 20 years prior to our visit.
Our visit lasted some time longer, while we met the other of the two monks that lived in the monastery, descended into their nearby cave which is home to cobras larger than a man’s thigh, and climbed up to a golden pagoda. The first monk offered us tea, took a selfie with us, smoked a cigarette, and shared his thoughts on the monk we had seen laying in the case. The visit was far more enjoyable than we had originally anticipated, and is worth a look while you’re in Loikaw.
Transiting from Loikaw to Thailand should have been a short enough affair by busing to the Thachileik/Mai Sai border, but with the constant closing and opening of the road to foreigners, we were forced to transit all the way back to Yangong, and then onto Myawaddy/Mae Sot again. We were heading toward Chiang Mai for a few days while working our way toward Laos, check out our time there next!