The ancient hairstyle of Set Set Yo

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Set Set Yo children playing a traditional game.

A village near Bagan known for keeping alive a millenia-old hairstyle is battling climate change and food shortages. By Brittney Tun. Photos by Ye Myat Tun of YMT Productions.

Set Set Yo village, about an hour from Bagan, is the last place to witness the fading tradition of Myanmar’s yaung pae soo hairstyle. Dating back to the Pagan Empire, the unique topknot once adorned the heads of kings and “bawgas” (the rich) during celebrations and parades, but is now only kept by Set Set Yo’s children.   

My troupe and I loaded 36 bags of trinkets, sweets, and school supplies, then set out from Bagan to the village monastery. A local couple was already there offering a donation, and the Sayadaw had the youngsters seated behind them. “Don’t force the kids for a picture,” he cautioned. “Some people come and pressure them to.”

Producing crops such as pigeon pea, groundnut and sesame, the village is a recipient of the UNDP’s Adaptation Fund project, “Addressing Climate Change Risks on Water Resource and Food Security in the Dry Zone of Myanmar.” The four-year plan, which started in February 2015, is in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.  

Children with the yaung pae soo hairstyle.

Karma Rapten, a technical specialist for the UNDP, is involved with the project in Set Set Yo. “Myanmar’s Dry Zone is one of the few areas in this region where food security for survival is still a real issue,” he said. In the last 10 years, the village has suffered the effects of climate change. Shorter monsoon seasons with erratic rainfall patterns, high intensity rainfall with flash floods, and extreme temperatures producing drought spells have affected the village’s economy.  

In Set Set Yo, there are 125 dry land farmers, but approximately 30 percent of total households in the village are landless. These households earn their income as seasonal agricultural workers. “UNDP provides drought-tolerant species of livestock [pig, goat, and chicken] to landless households. So far, 18 households in Set Set Yo village have received support through the project,” said Karma.  

Additionally, farmers and government staff are receiving training on better animal husbandry practices and pest and disease control. “The Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department has supported the farmers in providing free vaccination and technical support for the management of livestock,” added Karma. Farming, he says, is the primary source of livelihood for the farmers and “tourism is in no way a significant feature of Set Set Yo village.”    

After measuring us up for about 30 minutes, the kids retreated to the back of the monastery and poked around at a homemade paper boat floating in a giant mud puddle. The older boys leaned against a tree, crossing their lanky arms and eying us warily. The younger kids gathered for a game of hpan khoun, a type of jumping game.

I was watching the game at a distance beside a group of girls who were coddling my three-year-old. I envied their long, glossy eyelashes. From the corner of my eye, I saw a youngster helping another child of four or five to re-tie his topknot. They do it themselves—the older children washing, trimming, and shaving the hairlines of the younger children with razors. As each child grows, they adapt their yaung pae soo to reflect their age and gender, eventually shaving it off upon taking customary monastic vows, then growing a full head of hair.  

Children having their meal.

Khaing Tha Zin Myo, a girl of about nine, laced her fingers in mine, tugged me, and said, “Comes.”  “Thaw dare,” I cheered.  “Ni ma Inglake zagar tut dare!”  She beamed and cast her pretty eyes downward.  Everyone followed in a grand procession, stopping occasionally to pick flowers for our hair.  We circled the village when, like lightning, they broke for a dry creek bed behind a line of trees and brush.  

My daughter learned how to play leapfrog and hopped her way to the finish line drawn in the sandy bottom. The little ones huddled around us closely, the sweet, natural fragrance of their locks wafting through the breeze.  

We went again to the monastery where they opened their presents. I marveled as they skipped the chocolates and candies and went straight for little whistles we threw in. The sound was deafening, and my husband belly-laughed for the first time in ages. A few stopped to help my daughter blow hers. The awareness for the little ones around them is instinctual.

Soon, they will grow their hair out and become farmers, but today they are free to roam and play leapfrog. I’ll never forget the sound of dozens of children blowing little plastic whistles in the Myanmar countryside. It was, perhaps, the purest moment of my life.

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