The asphalt road is the only grey line in this colorful landscape. The green of the forest shines so brightly that I have to put on my sunglasses. Yellow and blue butterflies fly out of the bushes and start racing my motorbike.
The sign warns me of a possible elephant encounter. The butterflies takeover the motorbike and spread out like a curtain revealing a young elephant’s silhouette. It stands on the side of the road chewing banana leaves. I slow down warned yet again by a new sign “Slow down, School Area.”
I reach Huay Sua Thao, a settlement marked on the map as “long neck village”. I stop; I pay the 250 baht contribution and I enter the village. I look straight forward avoiding the temptation of the handicrafts shown off on the side of the alley.
The long neck neighborhood lays behind the Thai village, on the opposite side of the spring. Human rights activists would describe it as a human zoo or touristic ghetto. Personally I would be more considerate in labeling it.
Kayan Lahwi is the ethnic group whose women wear brass rings around their necks with the purpose of making them appear longer. The origin of this tradition is still under discussion. Some authors claim the women started wearing the brass rings so that the men in rival tribes would find them less desirable and thus uninterested in turning them into slaves. Others say that, on the contrary, a long neck is a sign of extreme femininity and thus the Kayan women become more attractive and desirable to their men.
These people’s situation is as unclear. Running away from neighboring Burma at the end of the 20th century, they arrived in Thailand and got the political refugee statute, plus a piece of land to work and make a living. They don’t have Thai citizenship, neither the right to work in Thailand. The only income sources are tourists who come visit, attracted by the exotic long-neck women. Huay Sua Thao was formed in 1995 precisely for giving visitors easier access to the Kayan people. The village is only seven kilometers away from Mae Hong Son and easy to reach due to the impeccable road.
Each house in Huay Sua Thao serves multiple purposes; it is at the same time home, museum, handicraft studio, shop or art scene. The long-neck women weave incredible linens or design beautiful jewelry which tourists buy for a few bucks – money which helps the ethnics feed their families.
Noticing I ignore all the silver jewelry on the table and insist on staring at the “Sound of Kayan Land” CD, the young lady grabs her guitar and starts playing a verse and the chorus. Her face looks very familiar, but it is impossible to think we ever met at a film festival. Oh, now I see it, she is the woman on the CD cover.
– Is this your album? Are you Ma-Tiang?
– Yes, it is me. These are traditional Kayan songs played by myself. five of them I play on this modern guitar and other five on an artisanal guitar.
– Can I see it?
– It is old and broken, sir. I don’t use anymore.
– Still, I would like to see it.
Ma-Tiang takes out from under the covers a bulky grey and heavy instrument. Surprisingly the guitar does not have a very long neck. Four keys and as many strings are missing, there’s dust in every crack but overall it is a beauty. How many songs does this old piece of wood can play? I would love to take it with me so that my Dream would have a maestro to learn from. The Japanese guitars are light, cheap and sound good, but they lack the sadness.
Ma-Tiang tells me the notes. G, D, C and some playful fingers on the strings.
The girl knows the notes, doesn’t just play by the ear. To return the favor I play a bit of Zeppelin, I buy the CD, and I ask the artist for an autograph. She is obviously disturbed, and I assume it is because of her extreme modesty. The explanation though is of a different nature.
– Sorry, sir, but we, Burma people, do not go to school.
It takes two hours by slow boat from Mae Hong Son to the Burmese border. The refugees miss their homes even stronger since they are so close. They miss it, and sing it. Two stals further another woman promotes her CD by playing a fine tune on the guitar. Her name is Ma Play. This time the song names are written in English: “Tears Forever”, “Don’t Cry”, “Kayan Tribe”, “One day we will return”.
I go up the hill behind the village where a poor little church looks over the disciples. There is nothing beyond this church, only mountains and forest all the way to the border. A rusty rim hangs instead of a bell. Above the entrance door, you can read in English “Sacred Heart of Jesus”.