For 21-year-old Ma Tha, wearing a stack of bronze neck coils is a sign of beauty and maintains the tradition of the Kayan tribe. She returned to the remote Pan Pet village in Demoso Township in Myanmar’s Kayah State in 2016 with her father after nine years working in Thailand while her mother and siblings remained in Myanmar. Ma Tha hopes the prospect of booming tourism and more income for selling traditional items will provide her with stability in her homeland. “It’s a struggling situation and we did not have enough income for the family’s needs, so we decided to leave Thailand,” she told ucanews.com. Ma Tha and her father now run a neat little shop selling locally made wooden dolls, scarves and individual bronze neck rings.
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“Our daily income depends on the tourists and we have high hopes to get good income in our homeland in the future,” Ma Tha said as she made scarves in the shop near her two-story brick home. A single Kayan woman who can speak little English or Thai, Ma Tha is unmarried and says with a smile that she has no boyfriend. Once the preserve of travelers as its ethnic areas languished under junta rule, Myanmar is now a hot tourist draw. Much of Kayah State was off limits to foreigners and regarded as an unexplored area for decades under harsh military rule. In remote Pan Pet village, new roads are paved and electricity cable lines run alongside nice brick homes and shops selling handmade souvenirs. Tourists wander around taking portrait photos of old and young Kayan women. For years Kayan females have moved to Thailand to escape conflict and poverty and earn money posing for holidaymakers’ pictures in purpose-built Thai villages that are decried by rights campaigners as “human zoos”. About three years ago, they started to return to their homeland as it became more peaceful, allowing tourists access to the region and improvements to infrastructure such as roads and electricity. Kayan girls are given up to 10 neck rings to wear starting from five years old. They then add a new one every year until adulthood. The practice gives them a giraffe-like appearance that painfully compresses their shoulders and collarbones rather than stretching their necks. Many myths and legends surround the tradition, including one that women began wearing the rings to protect themselves from tigers and another that they enhance their beauty. The ancient Kayan tradition is centuries old but the practice faces an uncertain future as modernization looms for younger people. Mu Par, 20, said she would continue to wear bronze rings on her neck but would not allow her daughters to do so. “I want them to pursue their education,” she said. The gradual disappearance of the tradition is obvious in Pan Pet, where more than 1,000 residents live. As modernization emerges with easy access to mobile phones and the internet, young people are choosing to dress casually in T-shirts, blouses, trousers and longyis. Margarita, a 20-year-old Catholic woman, said she doesn’t wear bronze rings in her neck and prefers the free style of wearing a blouse and a longyi. She is from Kathanku village, a hamlet of Pan Pet where some 80 people reside in a mixed community of Buddhists and Catholics. A small wooden Catholic church is seen near Margarita’s home under green hills. Maria, 80, poses for a portrait photo in her small hut in Kathanku and says she became a Catholic 20 years ago by converting from Buddhism. The older generation like Maria seems comfortable and proud of their beauty by wearing rings as tourism booms in eastern Myanmar, but young people face the dilemma of choosing between an ancient tradition or wearing the rings for commercial purposes.