In commercial collaboration with Discovery Rides
We did a day trip from Loikaw to the Pan Pet Villages on a motorbike. These villages are inhabited by a Kayan tribe that is famous for the tradition of their women stretching their necks with brass spirals. Our visit there was one of the most memorable and special experiences of our motorbike trip from Mandalay to Yangon and of our whole stay in Myanmar. During our visit, we got to visit local homes, talk to some of the women and learn some things about the traditions of the villages.
About the Pan Pet Villages
Kayan Lahwi is a sub-tribe of a bigger tribe named Kayan. The Kayan Lahwis are known for its women who have the tradition of stretching their necks with brass spirals. About 40 kilometers from Loikaw lies a bunch of small villages inhabited by the Kayan Lahwi. These villages are more commonly known by the name “Pan Pet”.
How to get from Loikaw to the Pan Pet Villages – Organize your visit
There is no public transport going to the Pan Pet Villages. It is possible to organize a tour in Loikaw with a guide and a driver. Luckily, we were in the middle of our road trip and could get there independently on our lovely Royal Enfield (rental) motorbike.
If you search “Kayan Traditional Market” on Google Maps, you will come to a souvenir market where Kayan Lahwi women are selling handicrafts. Continue straight ahead and soon you will arrive to the first village.
There are altogether seven villages. Together they have a CBT-office (Community Based Tourism), which is located in the village number three. We didn’t manage to find any contact info of the CBT office and therefore couldn’t book a tour beforehand. That is advised, though, and here is their phone number: 09453521327 / 09455423972.
When we arrived in the first village, we soon bumped into another tourist couple. They were the only other tourists we saw in the area, so it was quite a coincidence, that they, too, were Austrians! They had come with their own guide and besides that they had a local guide from the village. She could translate from the local language to English. Lucky for us, the Austrians invited us to join their tour!
The long tradition of neck-stretching
We got to visit three homes of Kayan women and could talk with them with the help of our guide. First, we wanted to know, of course, where the tradition of neck-stretching is coming from and why it’s still practiced.
We learned that originally the brass spirals were put to the necks of the little girls in order to protect them. Some decades ago, child abduction was quite common. The members of other tribes wouldn’t know how to detach the spirals, and with them the Kayan Lahwis could also easily spot their own. Some say that the spirals were also used to protect from tiger bites.
The neck stretching is started already when the girls are little, but nowadays the girls are allowed to decide themselves whether they want to start it or not. Even though the neck-stretching is not as common as it used to be anymore, many girls still want to keep up with this tradition simply because they think the brass spirals look beautiful. On the other hand, many decide against it due to the fear of being bullied when they go to study in bigger cities, for example. The spirals around the neck are also a symbol of power – the one who has the most layers, has the most power. Some women of the Pan Pet Villages carry over 25 layers of heavy brass spirals around their necks.
The spirals around the neck make the neck look longer, and therefore we are also talking about “neck stretching”, but actually the neck itself is not stretched. Instead, the spirals are pushing the collarbones lower. Even the older women sometimes still feel pain because of that. But holding the weight of the head would be difficult and therefore the spirals are taken off only in rare situations, like during a doctor’s visit. So, the women are even sleeping and bathing with the spirals on.
Introduction to Kayan Lahwi’s life
Besides the neck-stretching, we also talked about other aspects of the Kayan Lahwi women’s lives. Life in these remote villages hasn’t been the easiest. Earlier the villagers didn’t have access to education or health care. Therefore, some of these women had lost several children due to illnesses. Nowadays the villages luckily do have schools and health centers.
The women also wanted to know some things about us. One of them was wondering what are we eating back home. Not rice, at least, or how come our skin color is so different to theirs?
In one of the villages, we also visited a kindergarten, where the kids sang a few songs for us. Besides that, we got to learn traditional ways of jewelry making and got to taste home-made rice wine.
At the end of our visit to the Pan Pet Villages, we asked one of the women about her thoughts on the tourists visiting their village. She thought that the CBT project was definitely a good thing and she wished for more visitors. Through the project she earns some money with which she can buy groceries, like peanut oil, and pay for her electric bill in order to keep the three light bulbs on, that she has in her home. The tourists are not brought to the same houses every day. This way more of the families can benefit from the project. The women are also always asked if they want to welcome visitors at the moment or not. Our tour at the Pan Pet Villages left us with the feeling that the whole project was organized in the villagers’ own terms (which, indeed, is the idea behind all the CBT projects). Therefore, we can warmly recommend this experience if you’re anywhere near Loikaw!