The Kayah Tribe and My Journey of Ascension

It was another day I seriously thought about taking stock out in dramamine while I regretted the fact that I didn’t at least bring more. Again, we went in search of tribes hidden away high up in the mountains of Myanmar. Over the past two years with the military rule giving way to democracy, the government has been trying to build roads to connect all of it’s people. The one road in and out was very narrow as it snaked along the side of the mountain. Rather than a very long drop, it remained a scenic vista thanks to the skill of our driver.

Village View

When we were about 20 minutes away from our destination, we stopped at a small village for a man to jump in the van with us. He was our “Wayfinder”. He was going to accompany us and introduce us to the tribe at our final destination. As far as we knew from Clement our guide, no Westerners had ever journeyed here before and we had the distinct honor of being the first. Be still my heart!

Our first sign of village life was looking up to see three beautiful girls high up in the hills working with the planted crops. As we approached, they didn’t stop but continued putting hand to the earth. They were in the moment and so were we!

Women In The Mountains

Hand To The Earth

When we arrived at the village of Daw Ri Dar, without asking, we were again taken to the elders. Imagine 4 total strangers, unlike anyone you have ever seen coming right into your home with cameras all around their necks…this is exactly what we did. A shaky wooden ladder led up into what many would consider to be an impoverished hut but I found the criss-cross design of the reeds on the walls expressive of a wonderful artistry and attention to detail. The hut was basically open. There were no doors to lock or windows to close. There was no reason to keep anyone out, all were and are welcomed in. The first women we met was a huddled over 98 year old woman. She was sitting looking out on her world. When she saw us, she folded her hands in the prayer of welcome. I was the only woman in the group and the first Western woman she had seen. We did not know each other’s language, but she tenderly stroked my face while I held her hands in mine. She was very animated with us and her family all gathered around enhancing the sincere hospitality we felt. Presence was their true gift. It was difficult for me to take our leave because I just wanted to stay with her, to somehow keep her with me longer knowing that we may never see each other again. Dr. Elizabeth Lindsey, an Hawaiian anthropologist and the first female National Geographic fellow eloquently said that, “Every time an elder dies, a library burns down”.

The Blessing of Welcome

Moment of Laughter

Engaged

Family Portrait

We then were introduced to a centenarian whose eyes were very tired and red. One of the other photographers I was with had eye drops to ease the soreness. It was quite something to watch her totally trust him as he put the drops into her eyes. She had never been through this experience before and yet she was totally open as she was blinking away. Her granddaughter wanted them also! She suffered from a goiter but had been unable to get any kind of medical attention.

In many cultures and religions, one goes to the elder before a journey, in illness or a special occasion to receive their blessing. We were then told that one by one, each of us would receive her blessing. We walked up to this our elder with our wrist extended. She then said a blessing of protection and good health over us and tied a cotton thread around our wrist. The white thread serves as protection from misfortune and evil and to ensure the blessing stays with the person. In a small wooden hut, a profound moment of grace and a bit of healing.

Looking Into The Face of Wisdom

Look Into My Eyes

Grandmother and Granddaughter

Traditional Dress

Throughout the day, there were several other older women wearing the black and blue dress adorned with shells, beads, coins and ear lobes elongated from the weight of the traditional silver earrings. This may be the last generation to carry on this tradition of beauty and identity. While they all wore the head wrap, it seems that T-shirts are making their appearance on the younger woman. These elders we met are the true wisdom keepers of ancient ways.

Traditional Ways

On The Path from Tradition to New Ways

Modern Day Mother With Child

The ascension metaphor became my touchstone. For me, it is so much easier staying at sea level. My knees don’t take to climbing very well but yet, in the rising, I saw sights few others have seen. I learned about the magic of presence, an openness to new experiences, meeting someone who looks differently with curiosity, interest and welcome rather than fear. I learned that somehow a common language can be found even it it is just in touch or a blessing. I saw what trust truly looks like and when I looked deeply into an elders’ eyes I saw an acceptance of life with all its joys and sorrows. I saw the knowing of the bonds with tradition from generations passed. This day and its people who crossed my path truly elevated my body, mind and spirit. My hope is that my photographs in some small way serve to provide a testament to these female elders of the Kayah tribe.

The Kayaw Tribe of Myanmar

Kayaw Tribe in the Mountains

It was definitely a two dramamine day! We left the beautiful comfort of the Loikow Lodge and ran into the arms of misting rain, a very sturdy van and Clement, our brilliant guide. The goal for the day: photograph the Kayaw tribe in the very remote village of Ya A Pra. It was approximately a 2 – 3 hour drive, with hair pin turn after hair pin turn high up into the mountains. I think I got in an entire rosary on the way up since looking down was not good for my heart!

Dress of the Kayaw Tribe of Myanmar

It wasn’t until approximately 2012 that foreigners were finally able to gain access to some of the ethnic groups of Myanmar, previously closed off by the military regime. Still, few outsiders have made their way here. Needless to say that we were the only moving vehicle for most of the trip. On a very muddy road (path) feeling isolated looking out on a washed gray color blanketing the landscape, we all suddenly became attentive to a beautiful burst of bright pink as we came around a corner. Pulled over to the side of the road was a motorcycle driver with a Kayaw woman as his passenger. The driver had his pink plastic rain cover but not his passenger and the skies were threatening a downpour. Clement came to the rescue and we all got out, made our translated introductions and welcomed her into the van. I was so taken with the alchemy of beauty, brightness, ruggedness and guts that radiated from our new guest…my kind of woman! She was as quick to show us her machete as her jewelry!

Traditional Dress

Beautifully dressed, Kayaw women have elongated earlobes with metal cylinders and adorning beads. Metal coils decorate both the neck and the legs and are worn in life and into death. Old Indian and British silver coins hang from the neck behind large silver and aluminum half discs. In the Kayaw culture, these represent the beauty of the shining moon. They were and are usually given by a groom to his bride to tell her, “You are as beautiful as the shiny moon.” Mothers also pass these down to daughters to tell them, “You are my beauty, as beautiful as the shiny moon.” It is a fascinating study that diverse cultures throughout the world have associated the moon with the feminine. Carl Jung’s collective unconsciousness is alive and well.

Adornments

When we finally arrived at Ya A Pra, sad to say, there were only 3 people around. The others were all off in the fields tending to rice, millet, beans, corn, pumpkin, cucumber and mustard even though it was pouring rain. With limited time to now photograph and get back down the mountain before darkness enveloped the road, we stayed with the 3 rather than going into the fields. Even though I pride myself on exercising regularly, my appreciation goes out to the three men I was so fortunate enough to be with for all their supportive words and arms as we slogged our way straight up a muddy mountain side…the zen mantra was one step at a time! At the top, we were rewarded with a man sitting weaving baskets in his hut. I was so grateful for his gracious welcome and total acceptance of us. Strangers walked in on his world unannounced and he promptly gave us shelter from the storm. It was humbling and quite the lesson on hospitality. There was very little in his hut except for a basic cooking area. Weaving was his creative contribution to his community. Life was simple, basic and connected. Clement explained to us that one of the customs of the Kayaw people is to make coffins for each person while they are alive. Death was prepared for and accepted. When we took our leave from this gentlemen we looked up to see a mother taking care of her baby. Three people we met on this day…the beautiful strong woman, a gentle man weaving away through the day and a mother loving her child…the people, the archetypes that transcend time and my world is so much richer for it!

Basket Weaver

Mother and Child

Also, my sincere thanks go out to Swe Yi, the co-owner of the Loikaw Lodge. With her husband, Jens, they not only created such a beautiful and environmentally friendly Lodge, but they are experts on the many Burmese tribes in the area. Swe Yi was so kind to help me find out the answer to the meaning behind the silver half moon jewelry. Jens is the author of “Marked For Life” which is a fascinating in depth look at the Chin Women and their facial tattoos.

A Montage of Myanmar

A Montage Through Myanmar from Frances Schwabenland on Vimeo.

While walking through fields, traveling the streets and boating down lakes and rivers, I fell into the easy harmony of the day. Myanmar is a feast for the senses. I was alive to all that was around me. The light and the beauty became a part of me while photographing and in Myanmar, both are exquisite. Temples, markets, traditional crafts passed down from generation to generation are the sites to become immersed in. Everywhere I wandered, I was welcomed into homes and hearts. There is nothing better than laughing right out loud with a person who was a total stranger the day before. Shared memories gratefully tucked away that continually stoke that flame of wanderlust!

Buddhist Monks in Myanmar

Myanmar has recently broken free from an intensely repressive military regime. While there are many growing pains, there is much hope. As with many countries struggling with issues regarding refugees and immigrants, there are some who profess strong opposition to inclusion, holding tightly to the concept of borders and singularity rather than seeing us all as interconnected and occupying only one planet. There exists in Myanmar a longstanding anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment. Prashanth Parameswaran stated in “The Diplomat” that, “there’s a real challenge here that’s symptomatic of a country in which the question of national identity has always been fraught, complex and unresolved.” Almost 90% of the population in Myanmar is Buddhist, most practicing Theravada Buddhism. Their practice follows the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right concentration and right mindfulness. Amidst all the complexities, the Buddhist monks that I saw, were a gentle and quiet reminder to simply be mindful of what I say and what I do and to ask myself if my words and actions are healing and uplifting. I am not sure if I believe in karma, but I thought that even if I start out with only two out of eight, it is nice way to live life!

Lofty Thoughts and Dreams

Lofty Thoughts and Dreams

Sitting In The Heart of Greatness

Sitting In The Heart of Greatness

Lost in Prayer

Lost in Prayer

Eyes That Capture A Heart

Eyes That Capture A Heart

Monks Walking and Talking Together

Friends Together

Monks Enjoying Favorite Drinks

Monks Enjoying Favorite Drinks

Tired Buddhist Monk

Oh So Tired

Daily Life

Daily Chores

Viewing the results of an earthquake.

Buddhist Monks Keeping Watch

Buddhist Monks Keeping Watch

The Long Neck Women of Burma

Dreams definitely do come true. In reality, maybe not as often as we would like! There is always a fine line between “magical thinking” and hope. However, this moment in my life had the quality of blessing for me.
Many photographers I know would say that growing up they would spend hours pouring over the pages of National Geographic. We were living vicariously through the compelling photographs of far off lands and people and tucking away the images into our dreams. I would see photographs of the Long Neck Women and think they were so beautifully exotic and meeting them seemed so far out of the realm of possiblity. Time passed, travel across continents became much easier and (some) borders opened up. I was off! I cannot even begin to explain the gratitude I felt when I got off the boat with cameras around my neck and climbed up onto a dock and was welcomed by these beautiful and exotic girls and women. I had so often seen the photographs, but now I was in them! Just writing those words brings forth a wellspring of emotion for me.

Dreams Do Come True

Dreams Do Come True

National Geographic (where it all began for me!) has created an informative and interesting video on these Padaung Long Neck Women and since the focus here is to connect the past with the present, I thought it would be the perfect link to add.
https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=The+Long+Neck+Women+of+Myanmar&ru=%2fsearch%3fq%3dThe%2bLong%2bNeck%2bWomen%2bof%2bMyanmar%26form%3dPRUSEN%26mkt%3den-us%26httpsmsn%3d1%26refig%3d7d3a577ed7aa4226a185364a79604262%26pq%3dthe%2blong%2bneck%2bwomen%2bof%2bmyanmar%26sc%3d1-30%26sp%3d-1%26qs%3dn%26sk%3d%26cvid%3d7d3a577ed7aa4226a185364a79604262&view=detail&mmscn=vwrc&mid=8706ABA9757C2ACD64148706ABA9757C2ACD6414&rvsmid=8706ABA9757C2ACD64148706ABA9757C2ACD6414&fsscr=0&FORM=VDFSRV

Creating and Living in Beauty

Creating and Living in Beauty

Young Woman Weaving

Young Woman Weaving

Long Neck Woman Weaving at Inle Lake

Long Neck Woman Weaving at Inle Lake

Sunset and a Moment of Quiet

Sunset and a Moment of Quiet

Portrait of a Long Neck Woman, Myanmar

Portrait of a Long Neck Woman, Myanmar

Portrait Through the Brass Coils

Portrait Through the Brass Coils

May something that you think is so out of reach move into the realm of possibility for you!