Ethical Travel: Should You Visit the Kayan Hill Tribe in Northern Thailand?

Portrait of a woman and her child belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

Thailand’s “long neck villages” are more than a contentious tourist trap, but also a home and means of income for Kayan refugees.

Visiting the Kayan Hill Tribe in the Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, is perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in the area. It is also one of the most controversial.

Nestled deep in the mountains, the Ban Huai Sua Tao Kayan Village is a small collection of homes built around a central market. Around a dozen women who live in the village also work in the market, selling a collection of wares such as hand-woven scarves and miniature painted figurines. Built in 1995 with the purpose of giving tourists easier access to the Kayan Hill Tribe, Ban Huai Sua Tao is one of three villages home to Kayan people in the Chiang Rai province that also serves as a tourist destination.

A woman belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe walking through Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

The women are beautiful and friendly, often eager to speak with you, sharing about their day-to-day lives and talking about their children. They are accustomed to having photos taken, as tourism has become these women’s primary source of income.

Yet, taking the portrait of a Kayan woman or her children is about more than snapping a quick photo. While all one’s photos should be undertaken with the utmost sensitivity and respect, this exchange of trust and human connection is made all the more important by understanding the story of the Kayan people.

For what many visitors to the “long-necked” villages don’t know is that the Kayan people are refugees from Myanmar.

Portrait of a woman belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

The Kayan people are a sub-group of the Red Karen or Karenni people, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority. Due to poverty and conflict, many Kayan were forced to flee Myanmar during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — seeking safety across the border.

Settling in Thailand, the tribe’s tradition of brass rings adorning women’s necks soon became a draw for curious tourists.

Indeed, more than 40,000 tourists visit the Ban Huai Sua Tao village each year. Many tourists are Thai, but the village also draws foreign travellers — who pay a fee of around 500 baht (or $20 CAD) to enter the village. A portion of this entry fee is meant to go towards the women’s 1,500 baht (around $64 CAD) base monthly salary.

The women working in villages like Ban Huai Sua Tao are in a difficult position, to say the least. Due to their status as migrant workers, the estimated three million Kayan people who have fled Myanmar have limited opportunities for work. If a migrant worker is undocumented, those opportunities are even more constricted — as undocumented migrant workers found living or working outside of a refugee camp may face deportation.

Portrait of a woman and her child belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

Documented migrant workers are able to find employment, however their movements within Thailand are restricted to their designated province (without an official permission permit). Additionally, to “maintain authenticity,” villages like Ban Huai Sua Tao are underdeveloped — with limited access to amenities like electricity. The theory is that tourists will not want to visit a developed village.

In 2008, UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsely told the BBC — amid allegations that the Thai government was preventing Kayan women from moving to other countries because of their value as tourist attractions — that the villages are “absolutely human zoo[s],” and that a solution would be to stop tourists from visiting the Kayan people.

However, it is also that tourism that enables Kayan women to support their families, send their children to school and, for some, save up enough money to build a house in an area of Ban Huai Sua Tao that is more developed and where Thai villagers live away from the tourism. During peak seasons, women selling souvenirs in the village can earn 10-times that of their husbands. To learn more about the Kayan perspective regarding tourism, take a look at the film “Kayan: Beyond the Rings,” produced by the Matador Network.

Portrait of a woman belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

Should you choose to visit a Kayan village, there are a number of ways to do so in an ethical manner:

  • Choose an ethical tour group that works with locals like Thailand Hill Tribe Holidays.
  • Spend time getting to know the men and women you meet.
  • Purchase souvenirs to help support the Kayan families — especially if you take their photos.
  • Ask permission before taking photos, and be respectful if you are told “no.”
  • Ask questions about the Kayan culture, but respect that not all of the villagers will feel comfortable talking about their status as refugees.
  • Don’t be a drive-by tourist. The more time you can spend with the Kayan people the more humanizing your interaction will be. Consider partaking in a homestay to really get to know the Kayan people and culture.

Portrait of a woman belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand. The woman is weaving on. a traditional Kayan loom.

Portrait of a woman and her children belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand.

Portrait of a woman belonging to the Kayan Hill Tribe in Ban Huai Sua Tao village in Northern Thailand. The woman is weaving on. a traditional Kayan loom.

AT CC we are as passionate about storytelling as we are about creating positive change. 

Discover how migrant workers are making space for themselves in Hong Kong.

Photos and text by Sarah Comber. 

*Editors Note: This trip and these photos were taken prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.  

3 thoughts on “Ethical Travel: Should You Visit the Kayan Hill Tribe in Northern Thailand?

  1. It’s about respect of the culture, showing a genuine interest and understanding that there is a thin line between purchasing something that keeps a culture vibrant Vs keeping people from developing a better life. For example buying handmade authentic market stuff good but giving money to begging kids kept from school bad. Good article

    1. Thank you. 🙂 Absolutely, I completely agree. It is very important to treat a culture with respect and authentically engage with the people you meet. I also think there is benefit to researching before visiting another culture — especially minority groups — because you can learn a lot about what actions are helpful to a community VS what may have a negative impact. For instance, giving money to children who should be at school. This is a big problem I noticed in Sa Pa, and there are lots of signs in the city asking tourists not to photograph or give money to little kids to encourage families to make sure their children don’t miss school.

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