Tag Archive | thailand

Kayan tribe: meeting the long-necked women

There are different concepts of beauty but for me none is as eccentric and rather ‘life-threatening’ as that of the Kayan tribe. During my naïve years in my early twenties, I visited the controversial ethnic tourist village in northern Thailand that showcases the long-necked Kayan women as part of our tour package, unconscious of the ethical issues around it. I didn’t know then that there are existing activism against the exploitation of these women for tourism purposes. My preconceptions then was that these women migrated to Thailand along with their tribe to escape their hard life in Burma, used their tribe’s unique custom where women wear brass-necklaces to attract tourists which eventually became their top source of income — entry to their tribe village costs THB300 back in 2011. Little did I know that aside from the health problems and life risks these women suffer because of this particular custom, their tribe also face complex issues around citizenship and migration.

With the most beautiful woman in the village

With the most beautiful woman in the village. Why I said so? Read on.

Kayan tribe

The Kayan tribe, a sub-group of Karenni tribe, is one of the six ‘hill tribes’ in northern Thailand. They are refugees from Myanmar who fled from the conflict. As refugees they continue to suffer from dire poverty, lack of healthcare and basic services including education. They also receive unequal share from the tourism profit. Some of them also experience difficulties in integrating with Thai society probably because geographically they live mostly in hills farther from Thai homes and customarily they have a more backward way of life as opposed to Thais who have embraced modernisation. Such ‘identity crisis’ is worse among young Kayans who grow up between ‘two worlds’.

Human museum or human zoo

Some call the Kayan village a human museum or human zoo because the main tourist attractions are the girls and women wearing brass rings on their neck. Kayan girls begin to wear brass rings as early as 5 years old; more rings are gradually added as they age. It is believed that the woman with the most number of rings is considered the most beautiful.

Wearing rings is part of Kayan tribe’s traditional customs. Some believe that wearing the rings will ward off evil spirits. Some think that the rings will protect the girls from being bitten by a tiger. Some also say that village men use this tradition to keep their wives from having affairs as husbands would punish their wife by removing the rings. In doing so, Kayan women are left bedridden as their head can’t stand without the rings.

I was told that the rings weigh as much as 14 kilos. A replica is made available for tourists to carry so they will know how heavy they are; I could barely carry it longer with both hands! They also have a lighter version of the rings that visitors can wear to take photos with.

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Practicing their craft.

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Wearing the bonnet I bought from them.

She is so pretty!

She is so pretty!

Should one visit the Kayan village?

During one of our intensive classes on human rights of migrants, my classmate brought up the question on whether we should visit the village knowing that some tour agencies exploited these women without giving them a fair share of the profit. Although the issues they face are very complex, a sad truth remains that because of their refugee status this women will not find a job in Thailand and tourism in their village remains their only form of livelihood. As such, the question is not whether we should visit them or not but how we can help them through our visit.

One way to directly help the Kayans is to purchase their products. If you have spare cash, directly giving it to them after you take their photo will bring joy to their pretty faces.

The village

We went to a village with less tourists. At the entrance before you pass through the bamboo bridge were booths lined up where they display their handicrafts for sale. I didn’t know then that young girls also wear the rings so I was a bit shocked when I saw them. At first they were indifferent to our presence which made me uncomfortable because I felt we were invading their peace, but when I smiled and attempted a conversation they smiled back making me feel at ease. Some women vendors belong to another tribe so they don’t wear the rings.

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How to get there?

I visited the village in 2011 through a tour agency so I cannot be of much help to adventurers who would prefer to commute. Although I remember that we passed through narrow roads along bushes which is said to be inhabited by snakes. Even if I speak a little bit of Pasathai, I may still find it harder to reach the area so going through a tour agency may be the most convenient option.


Keep calm and meditate

Meditation session in Bangkok

Photo from casnocha.com

My fascination for meditation began when I came in Thailand in 2009. It’s no surprise because meditation is greatly embedded in Thais’ religious lifestyle. Although some would argue that meditation is not confined to Buddhism. Many practice meditation solely to enhance their well-being without any religious connotation.

I started meditating in 2009 but I only do it for 10 minutes, at the office toilet! It was my way of preparing my mind to write –I work as a writer at the marketing department at the time—or coping with stress. But I have not gone far from that until I stopped.

Yesterday was my first time to attend a meditation session. The weekly meditation happens every Thursday from 6:30-8PM at Ariyasom in Sukhumvit Soi 1. The place is really nice with lots of plants around and some vintage-looking ornaments.

The meditation was led by an English monk. I heard that he was fascinated with Buddhism and came to study Buddhism in Thailand. Since then, he has organized various meditation groups and meditation courses. The session started with a brief introduction of meditation for those who are first-timers including me. After the introduction, we are left to meditate with our own style for 30 minutes.

At first, I felt so calm and at ease, focusing only on my breathing. Whenever my mind starts to wander, I would gently bring back my focus on my breathing. But after a few minutes, the impatient monster began giving me a nudge. I started talking to myself. “I should blog about this. No, don’t think about that yet, just focus on meditating. Hmmm, that Arabic restaurant along the road seems interesting; we should have dinner there after this. Shut up, just meditate. God, when will 30 minutes be over?”


My legs felt numb and then painful. The English monk said that whenever we want to move, we should let 2 minutes pass and see if we still want to move. He encouraged us to just be still and learn to let go of the whim to move. I also learned from a Thai friend who became a monk that pain is part of the process. “When you meditate, it’s normal to feel pain in your legs but after sometime you will learn to accept pain and detach yourself from it.”

I felt uneasy and impatient. Then I told myself, this is exactly what meditation is for. It will teach us to be patient and tame our thoughts. Nothing comes easy. Reaping the life changing benefits of meditation must start with the will and a great deal of hard work –which is ironic because meditation should be making our mind and body still – because silencing our mind is the hardest thing to do.

I realized that attending a meditation session is an effective way to start the practice because with a group, you are compelled to finish the allotted time. Before, no matter how I forced myself to meditate for 30 minutes, I always get up before my time is up. I was so impatient. It needs getting used to and hopefully with the support of our meditation group, I will be able to make this a habit.

After the session, we had dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant nearby. I had a good time with new awesome friends from Colombia who work at the newly opened Colombian Embassy, an American former professor who has a book on poetry, and a Brazilian lady who came to Bangkok for 3 months to find herself. And oh, I’m able to drink lassi again! I ordered it because the name sounds familiar and when I tasted it I remembered I had it in Nepal. Their fattoush salad is delicioso! Thanks to my colleague Olesya for bringing me there.

Ruins of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya ThailandMy mind was mulling over a quote from the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It goes like this, “A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day. It’s called the Augusteum. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains. When the barbarians came they trashed it along with everything else. The great Augustus, Rome’s first true great emperor. How could he have imagined that Rome, the whole world as far as he was concerned, would be in ruins. It’s one of the quietest, loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up around it over the centuries. It feels like a precious wound, a heartbreak you won’t let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we’re afraid of change, of things crumbling to ruins. Then I looked at around to this place, at the chaos it has endured – the way it has been adapted, burned, pillaged and found a way to build itself back up again. And I was reassured, maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”

I could have been at the right moment, right time and right place like that of Liz if only I was in Augusteum. But no, I was in Ayutthaya. As my mind digested the depth of the quote, my heart was filled with awe at the magnificence of Ayutthaya. I felt joy beyond words.

It is said that Ayutthaya means “invincible city”. One of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. It was founded in 1350. Within 417 years as the capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya had been ruled by 33 kings of 5 dynasties. It became one of Asia’s economic and trading hubs. It is surrounded with three major rivers, namely the Chao Pharaya, Lop Buri and Pasak. With its beauty as the ruins stand today, I could not imagine how magnificent it had been before the kingdom fell from the Burmese in 1767.

Ayutthaya

Kingdom of Ayutthaya

The first time I visited Ayutthaya was in 2011 with my cousins who came for a few days vacation. A few months after our visit, Thailand was flooded and unfortunately Ayutthaya was among the adversely affected areas. It can be reached after about 1.5-2 hours drive from Bangkok. There used to be an elephant show back then but we were told it was banned now. Good news indeed because I heard baby elephants suffer from torture while being trained to dance, paint, etc. There is also a small floating market about 15 minutes by car from the ruins. Tourists can also pay for an elephant ride at the floating market. The costs vary depending on how many hours you would like to ride.

Elephant riding in Ayutthaya

I may not be in Augusteum but the splendid beauty of Ayutthaya that endured the ravages of time is enough to assure me that indeed, ruins can be a road to transformation. Even if things fall apart, there is still a chance to stand back up again, anew.