The Kayan Tribe
I was planning a trip to the ’long neck’ Kayan in northern Thailand for a long time, but somehow I could never fit it into any of my previous trips. They might not be a tribe in the exact meaning of the word; nevertheless their culture is unique and fascinating, but sadly, quickly disappearing.
The Kayan originate in Burma (today Myanmar), from the Karen State. Most of them escaped the war and the regime violating their human rights in their homeland. Burmese Shan call them the Padaung. Only small fraction of the Kayan, or more precisely their women and girls, wear the brass neck-rings (it is actually one long spiral), which depresses their shoulders and therefore cause the woman's neck to look longer. This gave the people their unflattering nickname the ’long necks’. In Thailand, the Kayan refugees became a tourist attraction and are surrounded by many myths and half-truths. Tourists often engage in heated on-line debates, questioning among other things whether visiting the Kayan villages is a horrible thing to do, or not.
The Kayan can be reached relatively easily. They live in the northern Thailand in three villages opened to the tourists and even charging an entry fee. Only the families who have a ’long necked’ woman among them live in these villages. The rest of the Kayan stay in refugee camps, which are inaccessible to tourists. You won't meet a Kayan woman wearing the rings in the town.
Usually, a visit to one of the villages is only possible on an organized tour. There is another way though, but not an easy one - the tour operators will, of course, never tell you that you don't really need them, and it is quite difficult to find out how to get there on your own. Not to mention that you will not be able to communicate. I would never take a part in such organized tour; I would rather not visit the Kayan than arrive to see them with a group of ten tourists, who really only care about getting photos and are photographing the Kayan as if they were animals - as we were to witness later.
Instead, I concentrated on finding an English speaking Kayan who would interpret and help me to learn about the beautiful culture of his people. This was not exactly easy, I did not even know if someone like that existed. I found a little bit on the internet: an interview with an English speaking Kayan woman. However, this led me nowhere; in fact I later found out that she (with many others) managed to emigrate to the USA.
It took me almost a week but eventually I succeeded. A Kayan woman working for an organization helping the refugees in camps introduced us to her brother who spoke decent English and gladly agreed to take us to the villages.
We set off on a rented motorbike and first headed to Kayan Tayar near Nai Soi. Because our new friend Ywen was himself only a guest there we had to pay an entry fee like other tourists. Unlike them though, we arrived early in the morning to have a chance to witness real life in the village. As soon as we arrived we were informed with smiles that some of the ’long neck’ women had already left for the jungle, to work in their fields. That seemed like a great opportunity to learn something, and maybe to photograph too, so we quickly followed them ...
Back in the nice and pleasant provincial capital, Mae Hong Son, we bought some provisions and drove to Huay Pu Keng, the village of our interpreter. The tourists usually arrive there by a motor canoe, but there is also a newly repaired road going there - but only the locals know about it.
We spent a few very pleasant days with these kind and beautiful people. We watched the rice harvest and saw them collecting chilli peppers, which they adore. We also saw how much work it takes to keep all the decorations, which the women are so proud of, nice and clean. But most importantly, we learned what is true and what are the myths; and perhaps got some new friends too.
There is no need to describe here all the details of Kayan culture, there has been much written about it before. Much more interesting, I figure, would be to point out some common nonsenses and half-truths about the Kayan:
1) If a woman takes the brass spiral off, her neck will not be able to hold her head up and she will suffocate. - Total nonsense! The spiral does not support the head; it pushes the shoulders down and so, visually, makes the neck appear longer. In fact most Kayan women took their rings off long ago and still are living happily. Some got refugee status and emigrate and abroad they certainly do not wear their rings anymore. In fact, you would never be able to tell that a Kayan woman took off her rings, without them she looks like any other woman in the area.
2) Funnily enough, the tourists in Thailand sometimes claim the opposite - that the women put their rings on in the morning and take them off again as soon as the tourists leave. - The truth is that putting the spiral on and adjusting it takes several hours, and only one specially trained woman in the village has the skill to do it properly.
3) I have often read and heard opinions (even from an Australian who has lived in the area for 30 years but never went to the Kayan himself - ”On principle”, he says) that it is terrible that these women are forced to ’deform’ their bodies from an early age, that they can do absolutely nothing because of the rings and that little girls can't even play. - Yet more total nonsense! The rings do not limit the women nor the girls in their normal movement. The girls run and play, the women work hard in fields, look after their houses, or make souvenirs to sell to tourists. They are also not forced to wear the rings; they do it voluntarily and gladly because, as they told us themselves, the long neck makes them beautiful. I find it much more bizarre that nobody is appalled by the ridiculous high heels worn by European women (they deform the feet); and what about the terrible body deformation caused by beer bellies .....
4) In Myanmar (Burma) lots of women still wear rings. - When I visited Burma I was not able to get into the Karen State because the whole area was (and still is) off limits. So I cannot know this for sure, but all the reports available to me (included what the Kayan themselves told me) suggest that nobody wears rings in Burma anymore.
5) On various on-line travellers' forums, there are often dramatic debates about whether it is OK to visit the ’long-neck’ Kayan in Thailand. The prevailing opinion is that it is a disgusting human zoo which most definitely should not be supported. - For the Kayan, tourism is one of very few available sources of cash income, and by now they are used to it. But how tourists behave is another issue. They snap photos of the lovely, friendly ladies without greeting them, or asking them for permission, without as much as a smile, often from the uncomfortably close distance of only a few inches. All that so they are able to show off their snapshots of ’primitive people’ at home. They have no real interest in the culture and they learn nothing (perhaps that was not included in the price of the tour). That fact, though, does not stop them spreading the above mentioned nonsenses. Only the rude and arrogant tourists turn the Kayan villages into human zoos because they treat the Kayan as animals or ’primitives’. But those who come to see a people with an unusual and interesting culture, and approach them with real interest and respect, surely they will be always welcomed by the Kayan .....
6) The Thais control and exploit the Kayan. - Sadly, it is true that the access to the villages is controlled by the Thais, who care about their profit more than anything else. But it is also true that they pay a regular salary to the women who wear the rings, so the Kayan do not mind too much. Claims that the villages are ’artificial’, only built for tourists, is not entirely correct. The Kayan live quite a normal life in them, there are schools run with international support, and the only difference between these villages and the original Kayan homes in Myanmar, might be that there is a souvenir stall in front of each house ..... However, the situation of the Kayan in Thailand would no doubt improve greatly if they were able to obtain permanent residency and an ID card (many of them have been living in Thailand for decades). They could then get a job, own land and have more control over their lives.
7) Kayan are often kept as half-prisoners in Thailand and Burma (on the Inle Lake and elsewhere), as a display for tourists, who pay to take photos. - This is unfortunately true. I know about Inle Lake from others, and elsewhere in Burma, I have encountered this personally (and where I, of course, refused to take any photos).
8) It almost seems that the whole culture of the ’long necks’ is now kept alive only by tourism. - Exactly. It's very sad.