By Marie Starr
Photos by Phyo Thiha
With improvements to infrastructure, a more convenient visa process and fewer restricted areas, more tourists in Myanmar – both local and foreign – are making their way to destinations once considered to be ‘off the beaten track.’ While there are benefits for a community when tourism numbers increase, in some parts of Myanmar – especially Kayah State – this also poses marked risks.
Kayah State is home to the Kayan ethnic group who are famous for the distinctive brass coils which they wear on their necks, wrists and legs. The International Trade Centre (ITC), an agency of the United Nations, who is working against these negative effects through its inclusive tourism project: ‘Netherland Trust Fund III Myanmar: Inclusive Tourism project focusing on Kayah State’ aims to help the locals of the villages now popular with tourists to benefit from their visits while simultaneously helping them to preserve their precious culture.
The project also guides villagers to provide some facilities to the visitors to make their visit more memorable and increase the time the tourists spend in Kayah. Next to the tourism development activities in Kayah, ITC also assists inbound tour operators in Yangon to better sell responsible Kayah tourism tours to their clients all over the world.
I journeyed with Winnie Mai, National Project Assistant for the project and Loikaw native outside of Loikaw to see their project in action.
“Kayah was chosen because it still has lots of potential for culture tourism and showed positive signs such as good accessibility,” explained Winnie as we drove towards the Kayan village of Panpet.
After passing miles of Kayah countryside with sunflower crops blooming and towering corn plantations in every direction, we arrived at the fourth of the five hamlets that make up Panpet.
Winnie explained, “Before this project was launched, the tourists would be brought to the area and stop at the shop, then spend a few minutes taking pictures of in the first and second hamlets and then move on.”
The ITC has set up two programmes for tourists which spread the benefit of their visit throughout the community. The first is a short trek (1 to 2 hours) through the Kayan villages ending with a home-style lunch. The second programme which they have named ‘artisan trails’ takes visitors to the fourth hamlet of Panpet where they are taken around the village to some Kayan houses where they are shown traditional crafts.
Visitors first meet a community coordinator who organizes everything for the tour on the village side. Next we were connected with our local guide. These local guides are necessary as the language spoken in these Kayan villages is not Burmese; effectively visitors need a guide for English-Burmese translation and Burmese-Kayan translation. The guide fees, although low, go to a number of different households providing services to the tourists rather than one travel company. Trained by ITC, these local guides also are the ones who truly know the culture, history and legends of the Kayan.
Our guide led us around his quaint village, down red-soil tracks with vegetables growing on every turn of the road. He led us to a large clan monument with an animist totem pole next to it in the shape of a bird which they pray to for wealth, health and a good harvest.
“A good thing about the ITC project is the many capable international and regional experts they bring in- for example, experts who can give training in food safety, environment protection or marketing,” mused Winnie as we walked.
We then visited three different houses where the Kayan woman inside would show us her craft – basket weaving, jewelry making and scarf weaving – and then give us a chance to try it for ourselves. Each house gets a little money from the tour revenue and there is also an option to buy goods she makes.The wares are priced fairly and knowing that the money goes straight into the household is reassuring.
“Actually all of the older women involved in the project can do all of the crafts but we advised them to each specialize in a different one.”
Finally we visited a farmhouse where we ate a traditional Kayan meal served to us around a low wooden table. The host gets a fair price for her time, skill and food and sitting upstairs in a typical wooden Kayan house passing around curries, bean soups and eggs made for a really authentic experience.
“Considering both the tangible and intangible outcomes of the project there are over 500 beneficiaries,” said Winnie.
As we travelled back towards Loikaw that evening, Winnie explained that setting up such a project was a huge task and it was difficult to get local leaders to accept the project or to coordinate with each other:
“We entered the village and we spoke to the leader but it turned out it wasn’t just one village with one leader, [Panpet] is a group of small villages which we call hamlets and each have their own leader. Then, each of the hamlets couldn’t work together; when one group showed up, the other didn’t.”
Overall, with the first phase of the project complete and a new phase set to start at the end of the year, Winnie can conclude that the hard work paid off and it is fulfilling to see the results making an impact on the direction tourism is taking in Kayah State.
“It’s touching the ground. The work really affects the community directly.”