Monday 20 January 2020

Meeting the Kayan Women of Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma is a country about which relatively little is known in the west. The city of Mandalay is familiar to us due to Kipling's now problematic poem of the same name and also perhaps because it is mentioned in the children's song Nellie The Elephant familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960's. There is also a widely held (although inaccurate) belief that Road To Mandalay was a title in the famous Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie series. Initially there had been a plan for a film of this name but the final title replaced Mandalay with Singapore. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell also wrote about their experiences in the country but offer insights from a relatively narrow point of view. However, there is a particular image that many people associate with Myanmar, that of the Kayan women who wear brass coils around their necks and legs. I recall seeing pictures of these women in a set of encyclopaedias purchased by my grandparents from a traveling salesman in the 1960's. I never thought that I would get to meet them but during my recent time in Myanmar I was able to visit the village of Kasae Kum and meet some of the women who continue to wear the coils. 

Best friends, Bilot and Bilone
Muthan aged 71 welcomed me into her home with a glass of tea and invited me to sit down. Both she and her husband are artisans. Muthan spins cotton and makes and sells scarves whilst he is a woodcarver, producing small figures of Kayan women for sale to tourists. Together they had eight children, five of whom have already died, some in childhood. She explained that until fairly recently there was no access to modern medicine here and that it was difficult to reach the nearest town with no easy roads out of the village. This was a story I was to hear several times over the course of the morning. Despite this, they have 20 grandchildren, all of whom live within walking distance. One of them spent some time peeping at me from the upper level of the house before deciding that going outside was a more interesting option. 

I asked Muthan how long she has worn the coils. She told me that she first put them on at the age of five and that initially it was very painful as her muscles had not developed sufficiently to support their weight. Whilst explaining this, she lifted the coils slightly to show me a heavy dark bruise on her shoulder. They are rarely removed other than for renewing perhaps every five years or to undergo a medical examination. In recent years some women have stopped wearing them altogether. This is said to result in pain which subsides after a few days but which leaves permanent discolouration. 


Muthan's grandson
Muthan's daughters and granddaughters do not wear the coils. She has mixed feelings about this and said that she respects their decision but is sad that the tradition is being lost. This was to be something common to the families of each of the women I met in Kasae Kum.  I asked her about the origin of the custom and how it began. There are various stories relating to this but she produced one that neither I nor my guide and interpreter had previously heard. She said that the Kayan women were told to wear them in case they should be scattered from their homeland, dispersed and unable to find each other. The coils were to be relied on as a means of identification. 

One explanation given is that they were meant to protect the women from enslavement by other ethnic groups, making them less attractive to other tribes. At the same time there is also a widespread belief that the coils enhance the beauty of the wearer, emphasising their slender necks, whilst a third explanation compares the appearance of the wearers to a dragon, a key figure in Kayan folklore as well as that of other tribes.

She also had questions for me, questions that were asked by each of the women I was to meet. They were focused mainly on my family, marital status and how many children I have. All of them were surprised that I travel alone and told me I should come again and bring my family next time. She offered me home made rice wine, the drink of choice amongst the Kayan and other communities and was a little surprised when I declined, explaining that I don't drink alcohol. She poured more tea instead and told me that she also likes beer but that it is bloating and can make you very fat! Before leaving I bought one of the scarves she makes. She placed the money inside the coils before thanking me for visiting.

Mutayant's busy granddaughter!
Mutayant lives a short distance from Muthan's home. She is 78 years old and a widow, She was not born in Kasae Kum but came there from her mountain village when she married a local man. The marriage produced ten children, six of whom have already died for reasons similar to those of Nuthan's. Like her neighbour she has 20 grandchildren and four great grandchildren some of whom were playing in her compound. Both Mutayant and Muthan are Animists as are many Kayans. There are also significant numbers of Christians amongst the community as well as Buddhists and people who mix Animism with another faith. Choice of religion appears to have no impact on maintaining Kayan traditions.

Mutayant put on the coils at the age of 10. She said that her daughters and granddaughters do not wear them as they "don't want to face discrimination when going out of the village to study or work". She said that she would never try to force the younger generation to wear them but had been angry with one of her daughters who had worn hers at a conference and sold them to a Chinese delegate. One of her granddaughters, two years old, was very busy playing outside the house, pulling faces, saying a few words of English, pretending to be working and generally entertaining us. It seems that her life will be very different to that of her grandmother. 

Bilot aged 73 and Bilone, 82 are best friends. Both of them widows, they spend most of their day together, talking, helping each other and enjoying the taste of rice wine. Bilot said "ask anyone in the village, everyone knows us, Bilot and Bilone". Both women had ten children. Bilot says that this is not considered excessive within the community and adds with a mischievous laugh "fortunately my husband died 32 years ago or I am sure I would be nursing another baby even today". Bilone joins her in laughing as do I, perhaps surprised at her candour. Both women put on the coils in their early teens and both wanted to wear them. Bilot said that the coils should be worn because "girls are more naughty than boys. They run around more so their parents say they need to wear them to prevent them from doing this. I used to climb trees and misbehave". Bilot is the only one of the women to give this explanation.

As with the other women none of their daughters or granddaughters wear the coils. I asked them how they feel about this and in response they said that if young women don't wish to wear them it is their choice. Earlier I had seen a group of eight young girls in the centre of the village, all of them wearing coils but later learned that these are not the same as those worn by the older women and are easily removed. It may be that they are being worn for the tourists. I asked the two friends what they think about people coming to see them. They said that they enjoy it. "We can't travel so people come to us. We like to hear about the outside world". They wanted to know how far I had traveled to meet them but had no concept of where I might be from. The interpreter told me that they have little knowledge of the world outside the village and would not really know where Yangon is or what it might be like.

Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Bilot and Bilone had several questions for me, most of them the same as those asked by their neighbours - why do you travel alone? how many children do you have? how old are you? They enjoy rice wine and drank it from a special bowl throughout the time I spent with them. They wanted to know if people drink rice wine in the UK and if I would like to try it myself. Bilot also enjoys chewing the betel nut, known as paan in India and this too was offered to me. Unfortunately I had to decline both as I don't drink and don't chew betel. She told me she chews it in order to keep her mouth fresh and laughed when I asked her if she was worried about the negative impacts it can have on the mouth and teeth, not least dyeing them bright red. She seemed genuinely happy as did Bilone whose grand children came in and out of the house as we spoke, one of them stopping for a quick cuddle with his grandma.

I enjoyed my time in the village and learned a lot not just about the lives and customs of the Kayan women but once again about how similar our ambitions are despite the differences between us. All of the women I spoke to wanted whatever was best for their children and grandchildren even if it meant abandoning some of their cherished traditions. I liked their curiosity about the outside world and their willingness to be open with outsiders. As I left I realised that they may well be the last generation of Kayan women to wear the coils and that many of their traditions will end with them.

A cuddle with grandma
Please note I refer to the women throughout as Kayan rather than the other term sometimes used - Padaung. I am advised that this is considered to be pejorative despite being used throughout Pascal Khoo Thwe's 2002 book From The Land Of Green Ghosts. I also met two women in the main market at Loikaw who used the term to describe themselves although they did not wear the coils.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here

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