The sun rises on Huay Pu Keng. The air is still dizzy from the electric heckling of last night. The wood is humid and cold, the birds start squirming, a first light was born behind the hill. Despite the early hour, the village is already boiling. screams, laughs and the rooster are witnesses of the new day.
"It's tradition!" Mapa smiles. When asking why she wears three kilos of golden rings around her neck, she answers with simplicity, used to the perplexity of her interlocutor. Her three-years-old daughter, stuck to her knees, hesitates between pouting and attracting her mother's attention. "She wears the rings during the high season, when the Thai tourists come to visit." The few centimeters of metal gives her the right to pose next to Mapa when, in front of the cameras, the visitors remind her the beauty of her ornaments.
Pragmatism, romanticism, rituals. The art of stretching out the neck -or rather squeezing the shoulders- carries a story for every taste. Some interpret this practice as a way of protecting themselves from tigers' attacks in the past. Others tell that the husbands would take off the rings of the unfaithful wife and condemn her to a life of laying down. At the village entrance, when, in the backlight, the women work calmly, bound by the peaceful rythm of the Pai river and gracious under the silence of torrid afternoons, I cannot help but thinking about the legend depicting the Kayan women as descendants of the Dragon Mother, an omnipresent myth in their culture.
Beauty and tradition. Two repeated arguments around the rings. The village is not an exception to the universal law that regulates women's behaviors, bodies and outfits around the world. We also call them "aesthetic and customs" or "charm and codes". The words are different but the threat that controls the female body is the same: suffering to be beautiful. Lengthening the legs with heels or the neck with rings; extending the ear lobe or the breast; crushing the waist and slimming until nothing. All these shapes belong to a set defined as the feminine ideal, varying regarding the culture, the community and the country. The only common point of these expectations is its roots -society, men and women- and the physical pain, the beauty's little sister. The Kayan women's case is even more troubling. Their economy is mainly based on their attributes and, in consequence, their value inflated dramatically because of the tourists demand. Even worst: Since the Thai government receives a part of the profits generated, the process that gives access to a normal status and allows them to live outside the refugees camps stagnates.
A few houses further, Masa is sitting on a wooden bench. She watches her sister's son playing, leaving and coming back. In the shadow, she waits for the warm hours to distill. The dress above the knees, we can see rings tightening her calves. Wider on the highest level, they clash when she swings her legs. Masa affirms that they don't stop her from walking and running. The only pain comes from the blocked blood circulation.
The village's life follows the schedules of its school, a big class welcoming children from every age. In the morning, the alleys are punctuated by the Thai syllables, repeated by heart. They are accompanied by the hammer blows near the river, the animal complaints and the rustling water. The women give the shower to the smallest ones in a big plastic bin. The men wait in the hammock or adjust their tools. The time is slow and thick.
"The ones with the rings earn more money." Masse wore the rings for three years. After a chirurgical operation, she decided to take them off for good. "It's easier for selling souvenirs to the tourists with them. They want to take a picture of you and feel obliged to buy something afterwards." Despite that, she feels pity for the women who follow the tradition: "They cannot go faraway, they have to stay in the village. They have to ask permission to leave." If the rings give a higher social value within the community and in front of the tourists's cameras, outside, they face the opposite. Masse remembers her rings preventing her from going to other schools. Between parental pressure, access to education and precarious status, the girls of her generation and the next ones face a painful economic choice: Accepting the golden yoke -brighter with the external expectations- and easing their short-term incomes or denying a part of their culture in order to escape of their refugee status, attend university and maybe find a job in town.
The heat falls back, the oranged light spills on the sky. All the children and teenagers are gathered on the volleyball field. They play until the night stops them. A few old generators for sole electricity, the activities rely on the Sun's goodwill. When we cannot distinguish the net anymore, everybody goes back home. The mats are unrolled on the floor. The sleep is lulled by the river's whispers and agitated by the monsoon's symptoms, watching from the hills and drumming the tin roof for hours.