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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Photos and text by Sarah Comber.
*Editors Note: This trip and these photos were taken prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.