Handicrafts and “Tribal” Colour ~ Inle Lake Myanmar

Kayan Lahwi (Padaung Long Neck) Woman through teak bannisters,  Inle Lake Myanmar

A Kayan Lahwi Woman
Sitting on a teak staircase in a weaving factory on Inle Lake, a woman wearing a colourful headdress and brass neck rings poses.

Inle Lake in the Shan Hills of Myanmar may not be particularly large, but it is rich with culture.

Its shores are laced with canals and waterways that give access to cities and villages housing about 70,000 people. Inle Lake is as ethnically diverse as the Shan State as a whole; pockets of Intha (“People of the Lake”), Shan, TaungyoPa’O (Taungthu)Danu, Kayah (Karen), Danaw, and Bamar live on the waters and around the shores. Regardless of ethnicity, most of the people here are devout Buddhists who live largely traditional lives in simple wood and bamboo houses – often on stilts over the water.

The people on the lake are largely self-sufficient, living on their fishing and farming. Extra household income comes from the making and selling of handcrafts – the area is well known for its woven textiles and hand-rolled cheroots in particular – and from the relatively newly burgeoning tourist trade.

I’ve posted photo-stories from this area before (see: Inle Lake). Join me for another boat trip on these beautiful Burmese waters.

Burmese man on the controls of a longtail boat, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Boatman on Inle Lake
As I have said before, the only practical way of getting around on Inle Lake is by boat.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda from the water, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda
Regardless of ethnicity, most communities around the lake are Buddhist. Some of the temples are just stunning – and represent real feats of engineering and architecture, built as they are, over water.

Paddle boat full of goods, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Boatload of Produce
Much of the boat-transport on the lake is by low-riding wooden paddle boats.

Spools of silk thread, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Wooden Thread Frame
The stilted teak buildings in Inn Paw Khon Village are home to a thriving cottage industry in silk and lotus weaving.

Woman Threading the Loom, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Woman Spooling the Thread
The weaving “industry” is labour intensive: this woman had to walk up and down the length of the frame with her silk threads many, many times…

Sllk threads tied in a pattern before Ikat dying, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

… before the threads are tied off for dyeing. Ikat (known as mut mee in Laos and Northern Thailand) is a complex dyeing technique used to pattern textiles: warp or weft threads are tied off in a pattern before the threads are dyed and then woven.

Wooden shuttered window on a silk factory, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Worker Next Door
The buildings are so close that you can see across the water and in through the window to the dark workspace next door.

A Burmese weaver

A Weaver
Inside the factory is dark, with light angling through the open windows.

Wooden loom, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

The Loom
The wooden looms for weaving the lengths of silk fabric are large and complex.

Old Burmese Woman Spinning thread, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Elderly Woman Spinning
People use their skills as long as they are able…

Old Woman

Weaver’s Hands
… performing delicate and intricate work …

Old Bumese woman at a large loom,, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Elderly Weaver
… for long hours and little pay.

A Burmese weaver

Weaver in the Light
The work is repetitive and requires concentration.

hands extracting lotus fibres, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Lotus Fibres
Inle Lake is the only place in Myanmar where the unique fibres from the lotus plant are produced. These are then woven into special kya thingahn (lotus robes) for Buddha images.

A woman with a length of pink cloth, Inn Paw Khon Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Dyeing Cloth
Lengths of cloth are hand dyed in buckets.

Three young burmese women Rolling Cheroots, Nam Pan Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Rolling Cheroots
In Nam Pan Village, on the opposite side of the lake, young women roll cheroots. The cigars come in a variety of sizes and flavours: the crushed tobacco and bits of dried wood can be flavoured with dried banana, pineapple, tamarind, honey, rice wine, or spices, before being rolled in thanal-phet tree leaves.

Three young burmese women Rolling Cheroots, Nam Pan Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Young Women
Their fingers are quick – but they still have time to check out the visitors.

Young burmese woman Rolling Cheroots, Nam Pan Village, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Young Woman in Thanaka
Ubiquitous in Myanmar, thanaka powder – made from ground bark – is used for cosmetic beauty and to prevent sunburn. It also has anti-fungal properties.

A Kayan Lahwi Long neck Woman in red headdress and neck rings, Inle Lake, Myanmar

A Kayan Lahwi Woman
Nearby, a bamboo and teak building houses a Kayan (Red Karen) gift shop.

Kayan Lahwi Long neck Women iWeaving, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Woman on the Stairs

Often referred to as PadaungBurmese for “Long Neck” – women in the Kayan Lahwi group or “tribe” wear brass rings around their necks, arms, and legs from an early age. The weight of the brass rings on the neck pushes the collar bone down and compresses the sternum and rib cage, giving the neck its lengthened appearance.

No one seems to know why the Kayan Lahwi started wearing the rings. Some stories say it was to protect them from being attacked by tigers, others say it made them look like dragons, and others say it protected the women against the slave trade. Today, most the women will simply cite tradition and beauty.

Historically from the Karenni (Kayah) State, many Kayan Lahwi moved into the Shan State and neighbouring Thailand in the 1980s and early 1990s because of conflict with the military regime. In Thailand, because of their unusual appearance, they became political pawns, and were set up in camps as tourist attractions which have been described as “Human Zoos”.

Three Kayan Lahwi Long neck women pose for the camera, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Kayan Lahwi Women
Women these days tend to wear fewer neck coils – and some don’t wear them at all.

Kayan Lahwi Long neck Women Weaving, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Back Weaving
Like other Karen groups, Kayan Lahwi women practice back weaving, using a back strap loom. Light and portable, back looms allow you to weave anywhere, but the pieces can be no wider than your hips.

Kayan Lahwi Long neck Woman Weaving, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Back Weaving
The Kayan Lahwi women work mostly in cotton and synthetic fibres, weaving brilliant pattern, making the traditional scarves and tunics.

I’ve met a number of Kayan Lahwi women over the years, and they have always struck me as intelligent, self-possessed people who are neither pawns nor fools.

Tourism is a double-edge sword: traditional communities and their handicrafts can benefit from the direct financial input of the tourist dollar, but they are also at risk of exploitation by unscrupulous operators, and risk the distortion of values that a sudden influx of money can bring.

To the Future (text)I hope that these traditionally self-reliant communities can find away to improve their own lives without losing those things they consider important.

Till next time ~

Pictures: 21-22September2012

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