In Person

A Life Dedicated to Promoting and Preserving Kayan Culture

By Thazin Hlaing 2 January 2019

Kayah State in eastern Myanmar is a state lagging behind others in Myanmar in terms of education, health and living standards as a legacy of the flames of civil war which burst along with independence in 1948.

Pascal Khoo Thwe, born in Phekon, a small town on the border of Shan State and Kayah State, is famed as the author of “From the Land of the Green Ghosts, A Burmese Odyssey.” He is a member of the Kayan Padaung ethnic group whose women are known around the world for their tradition of wearing brass coils around their necks.

In his autobiography, Pascal Khoo Thwe narrated his life, the customs and traditions of his ethnic group to the backdrop of civil war and amid the social fabric of Myanmar. The book won the 2002 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize for non-fiction and it has since been translated into many languages.

Pascal Khoo Thwe is currently serving as an advisor to the International Trade Centre in the development of all-inclusive tourism in Kayah State.

Recently, he spoke with The Irrawaddy reporter Thazin Hlaing about his views on the development of Kayah State and the tourism industry there.

When was community-based tourism (CBT) initiated in Kayah State?

It started in 2014 as a three-year project funded by the government of the Netherlands. The project provided basic training in tourism to villages and networked tour guides, hotels and tour operators. Training was also provided regarding preparing safe and clean food and in improving the quality of souvenirs.

We linked large local tour companies with international companies—mainly those based in London and Berlin. The three-year project has ended now and [a new three-year project is now] being implemented in Tanintharyi Region now but there will be continued support for Kayah while the project is being implemented in Tanintharyi.

Providing assistance for the tourism industry doesn’t end with giving training. There is a need to provide technical support for sustainability. We especially focus on providing training for villages that want to engage in CBT. We also provide management training for villages that already offer CBT.

Have there been any improvements in Kayah State’s tourism sector compared to previous years?

Previously, visitors mostly visited Pan Pet [a village in Loikaw Township] because there are Kayan [women] who wear neck rings. But at that time the villagers didn’t get any benefits. [Visitors] took photos and left, and only those who had their photos taken got some [money].

Thanks to the CBT supported by the ITC, villagers can now participate. They can work as tour guides and cook [and sell] meals [to travelers]. They can also sell souvenirs to them. There are direct benefits as well as indirect benefits.

Kayan women wear bronze neck rings as part of a disappearing tradition among the ethnic group in Kayah State. In the last two years, however, their village has become more known to outsiders since the introduction of community-based tourism. / The Irrawaddy

What do you mean by indirect benefits?

What is good for the villagers is that they can now promote their customs and culture. This greatly benefits them. We can’t measure it in terms of financial benefits. As our culture is on the verge of extinction, doing this [CBT] makes [Kayan] youths understand [the importance of maintaining own culture]. Foreigners can also provide greater help and have a deeper understanding thanks to CBT.

What should be conserved during tourism development in Myanmar, including in Kayah State?

There are many things. Particularly, we need to conserve the natural beauty and we should be careful with littering. We need to conserve the flora and fauna. The most important thing is we need to conserve culture and traditions. We can do this, but it is a long-term commitment.

Myanmar is lagging behind other countries in terms of the tourism industry. What is the main cause of this?

This can be mainly attributed to the government. The previous government didn’t work seriously [on tourism] and the current government can’t do it properly. This is the very reason. There are policies in place for tourism development, but no [government] can put them into proper practice. The previous government couldn’t and the current government can’t, though it tries. It is mainly because of the system.

We can’t blame the people for this. Places which have real potential for tourism development should be utilized. For example, there are islands but as the government and military have occupied them, they can’t be used for tourism purposes. There are many areas where foreigners are restricted from travelling too.

Have the villages that engage in CBT seen significant development?

Development is not that tangible. They need equitable development rather than financial benefits. For example, because of their educational levels, they can’t use the provided facilities properly. But there are certain improvements—roads have become better; locals have access to electricity and better health care services.

What are the major hurdles in implementing the CBT projects?

It is mainly about technique. There is a need to manage things so visitors are able to come. As villagers lack experience, the most difficult thing is to convince them that they can offer CBT without compromising their culture.

Which places are major attractions in Kayah State?

Foreign travelers mainly visit Pan Pet and Hta Nee La Leh. Both local and foreign travelers visit Pan Pet, Hta Nee La Leh, Htee Koh, Htee Se Kha, and Kyet Gu Cave. It can be said that places that are allowed for visiting are mostly visited. There are also [potential] tourist spots in southern Kayah State, but they may not be accessed.

Do you think the tourism industry will improve further if travel restrictions are lifted?

There may be an increase in the number of visitors, however local visitors tend to litter a lot. It is better not to lift restrictions unless local residents can control the situation. Some of the places are very clean and unspoiled. I don’t want to see some visitors littering with beer cans and plastic bottles there. It is important that local residents can properly control the places which are allowed for visiting. Otherwise, it is not fair for them—it is just like allowing other people to litter at their homes.

There are concerns that cultures and traditions will vanish as the tourism sector develops. What can be done to prevent this?

Rather than suggesting this or that, it should be accepted that the people will act on their own according to the wish of the majority. It is better that the government doesn’t intervene.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.