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Ethical Travel: The good and bad about visiting ‘long-neck’ Kayan tribespeople in Thailand

If you visit many of the towns in the North of Thailand, including Chiang Rai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang, then you will see signs and be offered tours for ‘long-neck’ villages. But who are the long-neck women and why is visiting them so controversial?

The Kayan people are from neighbouring Myanmar and they are a subgroup of the Karenni tribes, which is why they’re referred to as ‘Karen people’. They are a Tibetan-Burmese tribe and many are the Kayan Lahwi, also known as the Padaung but Kayan is the preferred term. It is the Kayan women who wear the brass coils that give the impression of elongated necks because the rings compress their collar bone.

The reason the Kayan people came to Thailand is because of surprise, surprise, ethnic conflict in Myanmar in the 1980s and 90s which granted them ‘conflict refugee’ status in Thailand. Previously to that, the Burmese government discouraged the wearing of the coils in an attempt to appear ‘modern’ to the outside world and their use dwindled as a result.

It is not known where the tradition originated, and there are various theories but ultimately its about cultural identity, and possibly beauty as well. Thailand is a relatively stable and oft-visited country that knows how to exploit tourism (despite having much less famous sights than all of its neighbours), so it spied an opportunity in its refugee border camps.

Kayan woman in Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Kayan woman in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

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It was in 1985 that tourism villages were created and some of the Kayan people received work permits to live in artificial residencies that the Thai government profit from. The Thai authorities refuse to acknowledge their citizenship as they consider them to be economic migrants and not refugees which gives them little choice.

Lack of citizenship means that they are effectively trapped in these fake villages as they limited access to public services such as an electricity supply, roads, healthcare and education.

The woman have a financial incentive to wear their rings, to avoid being seen with modern devices like smartphones and they’re discouraged from discussing their situation with outsiders. They can get an allowance from profits which includes food and toiletries provision.

When you visit a Kayan village you pay an entry fee that can be from 200 baht upwards and the women sell handicrafts and other items on market stalls. The village is effectively a small market and it can feel very staged. Women wear traditional clothing and spend the time that they’re not selling to do weaving, play instruments and sing songs. Tourists can ‘try on’ brass rings with a tie back, presumably as a photo opportunity. It is estimated that 40,000 tourists come to see the women each year.

I chatted to a woman and she told me that the brass coils made her neck hot as it was the dry season and boiling. She showed me that she wore a cloth to protect her neck from the heat and I told her that I didn’t know if we should come or not. Her response was a smile, as is the Burmese way.

So this is all pretty exploitative and feels unfair, but I have a slightly different take on this, as I travelled around Myanmar for a month before coming to Thailand and I was caught up in ethnic conflict while I was there. It was the fighting between the Arakan Army and the Burmese Army in Mrauk U that we saw and it was very frightening.

I can’t talk on behalf of the Kayan women, but I would prefer to spend my days being performative, exploited and safe than afraid for my life. Ethnic conflict is far from over in Myanmar and while I recommend visiting the safe places as a tourist, I think the Kayans are doing the right thing by staying in Thailand. I very much hope that things will change for them.

Elsewhere in the world, indigenous people are much more a part of society and in places like Bolivia, people are predominantly indigenous and they even have an indigenous president in Evo Morales. I assumed that North Thailand would be the same as South America with tribespeople coexisting in towns with everyone else and it’s a shame that there is such segregation in Thailand. I’m not saying that tribespeople don’t encounter problems in South America, but they’re much more visible and a few make good money from tourists.

You can also visit Kayan women at Inle Lake in Myanmar, again this is not where they’re from, but they moved of their own volition. The only problem is that you can’t see them when the lake gets too low in dry season.

5 tips to be ethical when visiting hill tribes:

  1. Have a chat, as if it’s quiet and you’re buying something then people are happy to do so. Use your judgement as there may be rules about what they can discuss.
  2. Ask before you snap and if you’re taking a picture then buy something from that person’s stall.
  3. Take useful gifts if you can get some advice on what people may need. The recommendation is to give to an elder to distribute them, but I would only do this is if you know the tribe is open to it and that it would benefit them.
  4. Buy handicrafts instead of bought produce. This will ensure more money goes to the tribespeople.
  5. Give to an ethical charity that supports displaced people.

While I don’t agree with the exploitation of tribespeople to line the government’s pockets, I also disagree with ethnic conflict and the situation in Myanmar much more. These villages do ultimately rely on tourism and its an imperfect solution to a complex problem.

If you discover anything that you have a problem with when visiting a Kayan market then raise your voice and support the ethical organisations that are assisting them if you can. Thailand is progressive in many ways even though this is so oppressive and exploitative, let’s hope that the country evolves to see that and to give the Kayans back their power.

Have you visited the hill tribes of Northern Thailand? What were your experiences? Let me know in the comments below!

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Ethical Travel: The good and bad about visiting ‘long-neck’ Kayan tribespeople in Thailand
Ethical Travel: The good and bad about visiting ‘long-neck’ Kayan tribespeople in Thailand


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