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The CEO Story: The ‘long neck women’ of Myanmar

The Padaung women of Myanmar or ‘long neck women’, as they are commonly called, have had a troubled history. Best known for their exotic looks with brass rings elongating their necks, they became a sensation decades ago when they were ‘exported’ for touristic purpose to Thailand and other countries. This story is not just about the Padaung women but also on the beautiful region they come from in Myanmar, a part of the country that was closed to tourism until recent years.

This year’s Asian Trails board meetings were held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s new capital since 2005 when the government moved it from Yangon. For most of my colleagues it was their first chance to visit this rather utopian city in the middle of nowhere.

Most of us flew to the city from Bangkok on the city’s only international flight operated by Bangkok Airways. With six-lane highways, 50 mostly large-scale hotels, the Parliament, and government buildings forming the urban landscape, Nay Pyi Taw looks more like a giant agglomeration of buildings than a capital city. A unique opportunity for us to visit this one of a kind place in Asia.

As is customary at Asian Trails, the chairman, managing directors and I travel together for a few days after our yearly meetings to discuss in a relaxed way tourism topics concerning our business, and to learn about new developments in the industry. This year we embarked on an overland journey to Loikaw in the heart of Kayah state.

We left Nay Pyi Taw early in the morning, and travelled south on the deserted highway to Taungoo where we had a breakfast of local delicacies in one of the crowded coffee shops. After leaving the highway the road started to wind its way up into the mountains with my sturdy 4WD car negotiating turn after turn. I couldn’t make any other comparison to this winding road other than to say it reminded me of driving in the mountains of Switzerland. The lush vegetation became greener and greener at every turn until we were driving through thick jungle. I was surprised to find the road was paved throughout the drive, although not in the best condition but good enough for the vehicle to get a safe grip on it.

We stopped for a late lunch in a little bamboo shack at the side of a river, which was converted into a restaurant and rest place. It is a great place for a swim or to cool one’s feet. To the delight of the children and local villagers we took a fun break with them before continuing our journey, driving up and down the forested mountains until we reached Loikaw.

The eight-hour drive was a long one, but was a pleasant journey passing through beautiful landscapes, jungles, rivers and villages, with hundreds of photo opportunities sans the tourist crowds. This will be an excellent drive for 4WD enthusiasts hooked on travelling off-the-beaten track to see the world.

Loikaw, the remote and sleepy capital of Kayah, Myanmar’s smallest state, is the starting point for explorations to the surrounding mountains, valleys, villages and lakes. It is just a matter of time before the border between Kayah state and Thailand open, offering fantastic cross-border tours to the Mae Hong Son and Pai areas. With the opening of the border point it will finally be possible to combine the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and northern Vietnam into one overland journey. I look forward to the day when this happens!

Loikaw and the Kayah state were closed to foreign visitors until the last few years, and the entire area has retained its unique charm and fascination. Not only are the surrounding mountains and valleys home to the Padaung ethnic minority, but also to nine more distinct tribal cultures that have retained their traditions and their lifestyle. The villages are simple by any standard, and a far cry from modern civilisation.

Most visitors who venture to this part of Myanmar come to see the ‘long neck women’ whose original habitat are the surrounding villages of Loikaw. Even though the ‘long neck tradition’ is slowly dying out and visitors will mostly see older women wearing neck rings, the spirit and bonding amongst the Padaung is very strong. In fact, one should call them ‘Kayan Lahwi’ since ‘Padaung’ is a Shan word, but I take the liberty to use ‘Padaung’ in this story as it is better known.

The Padaung culture is colourful and very interesting. Even though the Padung are mostly Christians, their animist beliefs are omnipresent and the village shaman as well as totem posts are an intricate part of their culture. They are essentially farmers but village hunts, when entire villages go together on one single hunt, are part of their traditions.

Asian Trails, in line with its CSR activities, donated a water well to one of the schools in Pan Pet village. Clean water, which is taken for granted in many parts of the world, is not found in this part of Myanmar. The water well that we sponsored collects rain water from the school’s roof, which is then purified to provide clean drinking water for both the students and villagers.

Not all areas around Loikaw are accessible to foreign visitors. Some require permits and some are off limits, but with more of the country opening up I believe that more and more areas will become accessible in the near future.

Loikaw is a three-hour scenic drive from Inle Lake, making it an ideal pre- or post-destination to combine with a visit to Kayah state. This is one of the most stunning overland journeys in Myanmar and a highlight of any Asian trip. Visitors can board boats for Inle Lake visits in the southern part of the lake, mid way along the natural canal or in the north, and choose to explore remote villages and temple sites or the better-known areas of the lake. There are even a couple of guesthouses and simple hotels in the south part of the lake for visitors to stay.

The launch of daily morning flights from Yangon to Loikaw earlier this year has opened the way for regular tours. There are a couple of hotels and lodges in Loikaw, which we recommend even though their capacity is limited for now and in the coming years. For adventure, trekking and 4WD specialists there are numerous possibilities to combine the region with the lower plains of Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay, or the hill station of Kalaw.

Asian Trails Myanmar will be happy to tailor make a journey to suit the travel preferences of individual visitor.