On my last couple trips to Myanmar, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some destinations that were new to me, and some that are more or less new to tourism. Kayah State happened to be both of these.
Myanmar’s smallest state, Kayah State hugs the Thai border in the country’s east. For decades, much of the state was a battleground between the Burmese army and the military wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party. Foreigners have been visiting the area for a while, but only on government-sanctioned group tours, and only then when things were quiet. Today, with a ceasefire signed and fighting relegated to the past, parts of Kayah State have been officially designated ‘open’ by Myanmar’s central government, and for the first time, independent tourists are allowed to visit. I’d never been to Kayah State, and was excited about the prospect of visiting an ‘untouched’ destination, and perhaps even encountering some food that was new to me.
Undoubtedly Kayah State’s biggest tourist draw is the Kayan. Known in English as ‘longnecks’ and in Burmese as Padaung (actually a Shan term meaning ‘wearing gold’ — a moniker generally considered pejorative by the Kayan), the tribe is best known for the women’s habit of wearing stacks of brass rings around their necks. Over time, the rings lower the women’s collarbones and ribcage, making their necks appear unusually long. A common myth claims that if the coils are removed, the women’s necks will fall over and the women will suffocate. In fact the women attach and remove the coils at will and there is no evidence that this deformation impairs their health at all.
A few local guides are trying to re-establish the tourist trail to Kayan villages, and with them I went to Rangkhu, allegedly the largest Kayan village in the state.
We drove about an hour south of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, through a savagely deforested landscape of spiky hills. Kayan villages in Thailand have been compared to human zoos, and there are allegations that Kayan women are used to draw tourists at Inle Lake, but there was nothing touristy about Rangkhu. It’s a poor, relatively featureless place, whose inhabitants seemed mildly bewildered to see us. Only a handful of tourists have passed through the village in the previous decade, and foreign tourists haven’t been allowed to stay overnight in Rangkhu since 1996.
Upon arriving, we were told that a local woman had been ill for a few months without any sign of improving. Although the majority of the Kayan have adopted Christianity, some are still animists, and in an effort to help the woman, the villagers had killed a pig and two chickens and were making a stew-like dish, which along with rice and some rice alcohol, the village shaman would offer to the spirits:
It was generous offering for a group of people who didn’t appear to have much.
After the food was prepared, a tiny portion was put in a couple bamboo tubes. The shaman walked to a nearby hillside:
unceremoniously deposited the offerings on a rock, and left.
That was about as close as I got to local food in Kayah State. After asking around in Loikaw, I was told that the only local dish available in the town’s restaurants was something called hin htoke.
Served at a tiny housefront restaurant called Mingala, hin htoke takes the form of a rice flour batter seasoned with herbs, topped with meat (pork or chicken), wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed:
It was a simple but delicious dish, particularly when served the Burmese way, with a squeeze of lime and a drizzle of spicy chili oil.
Except that it wasn’t exactly local; I was told later that hin htoke actually has little to do with Kayah State, and is associated with the Intha, a group of people who live near Inle Lake, in neighbouring Shan State.
So perhaps I didn’t get to experience local food in Kayah State, but to be honest, if I hadn’t been told, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Mingala Hin Htoke
Kant Kaw Rd, Loikaw
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