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Why you should NOT visit the famous long neck tribe in Thailand

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The long neck tribe in Thailand has long been a popular tourist attraction in Thailand, but this has not been without controversy. Some people say that you absolutely should visit the Kayan people because they are in desperate need of the tourist Dollar. Your visit will be educational and will help to promote the preservation of this fascination culture and associated traditions. Other people, however, claim that these women suffer at the hands of the tourist trade and are in fact working in a ‘human zoo’.

So what is the truth? Should you visit the famous long neck tribe in Thailand or should you stay away? Well, in this article I will explain all.

Should you visit the long neck tribe in Thailand?

long neck tribe in Thailand

If you ever heard of and wanted to visit the Kayan “long neck” people, but never did because it felt too touristy, Huay Pu Keng in Mae Hong Son is your place to go.

Are you looking for unique, meaningful encounters with individuals that have stories to tell that you never heard of, traditions to share that you never experienced, and skills to teach you that you never imagined to learn? The inhabitants of Huay Pu Keng are more than happy to let you become part of that and more during your visit.

Many people around the world have this picture in their head of the Kayan women wearing brass neck rings, but not many know the significance behind these rings. In fact, much of the information about the Kayan that is spread around the Internet and even by national Thai guides is sensationalised and inaccurate! This is why I have teamed up with Charlotte Louwman-Vogels, founder and CEO of Fair Tourism.

Charlotte has done a considerable amount of work on the ground with the Kayan women and has become somewhat of an expert in the field! Charlotte and her team have kindly put together some accurate facts and information, demonstrating what is true and what is a myth when it comes to the long neck tribe in Thailand. Read on to learn more…

Who are the long neck tribe in Thailand?

Officially known as the Kayan women, the long neck tribe in Thailand are residents from Kayah (Karenni) State in eastern Myanmar. There has long been internal conflict within Myanmar, and when tensions grew (in the 80s and 90s) between the Karenni separatists and the Burmese army it caused many residents of the Kayah State to flee their homes.

Being as they were so close to Thailand, that’s where they went – Thailand allowed the Kayan people to stay under the status of ‘conflict refugee’. The Kayan people do not have citizenship status in Thailand, meaning that their access to amenities such as health care, schools and electricity is limited.

The long neck tribe are found in Northern Thailand, close to Myanmar.
This is a suggested route, encompassing a visit to the Kayan, for those who want to explore this area in Northern Thailand. Many people visit the tribe as part of a trip to Chiang Mai.

In the fascinating region of Mae Hong Son in the Northwest of Thailand lies the village of Huay Pu Keng, where the Karenni people (Kayan, Kayaw, Red Karen and Pakayor are all subgroups of the Karenni.), known colloquially as the long neck tribe, are living. Tai Yai (Shan, ethnic minority from Northern Thailand) also live in Huay Pu Keng. Huay Pu Keng is the largest of the three Karenni villages in Mae Hong Son, positioned next to the Pai river. The other villages are Huay Sua Thao and Nai Soi.

Although it’s not that accessible as hotspots like Chiang Mai, it’s a 1 hour and 50 min flight from Bangkok or a 5-6 hour drive from Chiang Mai. But when you get there, you have the place almost for yourself, since it’s really a hidden gem.

Some history about the Karenni people

Not many people are familiar with the stories and history of long neck tribe in Thailand, known officially as The Karenni people. These people are originally from Myanmar, but many of them fled to Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s to escape from violence and forced labour by the military junta in their homeland.

Together with other tribes, members of the long neck tribes were settled in refugee camps close to the Myanmar border. They were given three options: they could stay in the refugee camp (without freedom of movement), resettle abroad (to countries like Australia, Finland and the Netherlands) or move to villages open to tourism.

Most of the Kayan chose this last option. However, they did not receive legal status in Thailand, which means they are not allowed to go to other parts of Thailand beyond the Mae Hong Son province, unless given permission by the government.

Tourism became essential for these communities as it represents the biggest part of their income. In 2008, businessmen set up show villages near tourism hubs, like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pattaya. It caused tourism in Mae Hong Son to drop significantly, because the most important reason for visiting Mae Hong Son is to see the Kayan. 

The long neck tribe in Thailand are actually a sub-group of the Karenni People. So the people you are likely to see on a tourist day out whilst in Thailand are members of a wider tribe, most of whom still live in Myanmar: there are 40,000 Kayans in Shan State and around 20,000 in Kayah State. It is a small minority of Kayan, currently around 500-600, who live in Thailand.

The tribe originally settled in the Demawso area of Kayah State as far back a 739 AD, they are originally from Mongolia. There are still Kayan tribe members in this area today. When they arrived in Myanmar, they brought with them their religion: Kan Khwan. This includes their longstanding belief that the Kayans are the product of a union between a female dragon, and a male human/angel hybrid. However, while some Kayan people still practise this religion, many today are Roman Catholic or Buddhist. This is due to the 18th century Italian missionaries who worked among the tribe at one point.

The Kayan residents refer to themselves as Kayan and object to being called Padaung (which is a Thai term) as it is derogatory to them.

Why do the long neck tribe in Thailand actually have long necks?

Women of the Kayan tribe identify themselves by their dress and their brass neck rings. In their tradition, girls start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old. The coils are seldom removed.

Many ideas regarding the coils have been theorised, ranging from protecting women from becoming slaves to other tribes or to prevent them from tiger bites. Some also say that if they remove the rings, they will die, but this is a blatant lie told by Thai tour guides trying to make their story more sensational! The rings push down their collar bones and it is a huge strain on the body, as they weigh up to 20 kg.

long neck tribe in Thailand

However, the actual purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity, associated with beauty. In Thailand, the practice of wearing neck rings among the Kayan women has gained popularity due to the fact that it draws tourist attention to bring revenue to the tribe and to the local businessmen. But Kayan women are free to wear the rings, they are even eager to wear it as it is a way to keep their Kayan traditions alive. 

Historically, the women of the Kayan tribe have always worn brass coils around their necks. This gives the impression of elongation. However, the neck itself does not actually get longer; instead, the clavicle bones are pushed down, deforming the body. They can remove the coils, if they want to. The coiling is a lengthy process, so most women don’t remove their coils at all except for new (bigger) coils to be added or for medical procedures.

Is the long neck tribe an example of a human zoo?

long neck tribe in Thailand

Over time, the Kayan people and other Karenni subgroups became a striking tourist attraction in northern Thailand. The long neck tribes in Thailand had a unique culture and traditions that gave a feeling of authenticity visitors were seeking. However, this ‘authenticity’, which is a complex and subjective subject (read this article to learn more), begun to be questioned.

Unfortunately, a business was made out of the long neck tribe encounters because of the sudden rise of interest in these communities. This eventually led to zooification controversies, where some people began to suggest that the tourist attractions were inauthentic ‘human zoos‘.

Since tourism is, in most cases, the Kayan’s only income, locals had to please tourists‘ demands, which consequently generated a loss of authenticity and respect. Tourists were not briefed about how to behave with locals and they were not aware of cultural differences. This resulted in the occurrence of disrespectful and a lack of ethical tourism behaviour by tourists, for instance taking pictures of locals without asking for permission to do so. As a result, it was complicated to organise an ethical encounter between hosts and guests.

In response to the controversies, some tourists decided to boycott these villages also referred to as ‘human zoos’. By boycotting, tourists stopped supporting tour operators who are making profit out of these communities and drastically reduced the economic benefits of tourism to all tourism stakeholders.

Many tourists think that by boycotting the area they will help the Kayan to get better and fairer living conditions, which is not the case. Tourists felt cheated because they percieved their visit to the long neck tribe as inauthentic. Moreover, their main aim when coming to visit these villages was to learn about Karenni ways of lives, but in reality the cultural exchange with locals was limited.

These disappointments led tourists to look for other ‘genuine’ experiences in other destinations. Unfortunately, Karenni are refugees and they depend on visitors to earn a living as they have restricted freedom of movement. This decline in tourism had drastic consequences on the long neck tribe’s livelihoods ability to live a good quality of life.

Community-based tourism in the long neck tribe in Thailand

With the rise in interests in sustainable tourism and an increased education surrounding the need for effective tourism development and planning, Fair Tourism went to the long neck tribe communities, like Huay Pu Keng and talked with the villagers regarding a new focus: community-based tourism. 

Community-based tourism (CBT), a form of tourism that “takes environmental, social, and cultural sustainability into account. It is managed and owned by the community, for the community, with the purpose of enabling visitors to increase their awareness and learn about the community and local ways of life” (CBT Network 2011).

When community-based tourism is used, locals are actively involved in the planning and management of  tourism. The community benefits from CBT in multiple ways, for instance by using the financial profit generated by tourism to support the community’s development and protection (Suansri & Richards, 2014).

Furthermore, CBT decreases poverty by creating job opportunities brought about by tourism demand (Bagus, Imade, Nyoman, Putu, 2019). Additionally, new skills can be acquired by locals: critical thinking, discussion, planning, community empowerment (empowered local people have the skills to negotiate and represent themselves) and empowerment of women (CBT Network, 2018).

The long neck tribe, Huay Pu Keng, made the transition towards community-based tourism activities to avoid exploitative “human zoo” aspects that has characterised many hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand. Huay Pu Keng is the first and only Karenni village in Thailand functioning on CBT principles.

Fair Tourism, a Dutch foundation aiming to raise awareness among travellers and students as well as assisting communities to establish CBT, supported Huay Pu Keng transitioning towards CBT, so tourism is empowering them rather than exploiting them. Also, the fact that some villagers don’t want to work in tourism is respected. They do other work, for example in agriculture. 

long neck tribe in Thailand

It goes without saying that the perspective and opinions of the locals should be heard first, and they should be able to speak for themselves. In 2018, Nikkie Visser (a former volunteer of Fair Tourism) carried out research for Fair Tourism, to find out what the perspectives of the villagers are  on tourists visiting Huay Pu Keng.

Through semi-structured interviews, 30 inhabitants of Huay Pu Keng were interviewed on this topic. These represent almost all families, since there are around 200 inhabitants total. As indicated by the results of the study, all thirty respondents were positive about wanting to be involved in tourism. The main reasons for this are the opportunity to tell stories about their traditions, improve English language skills, to receive income whilst maintaining the cultures and showing tourists their way of living in Huay Pu Keng.

Moreover, the study indicates that the locals’ experience with tourists is overall positive. As quoted by an interviewee of the study: “I like it when tourists come to visit us. Some people do not have a Thai ID card. They cannot work outside the village. If the tourists come, we can show our skills to the tourists. If the tourists are not coming to our village, the inhabitants are forced to move outside Huay Pu Keng and work elsewhere.

The research concluded that the Karenni are very curious about how other people live around the world and they “love cross-cultural conversations” (Visser N., 2018). Finally, the study highlighted that the residents of Huay Pu Keng have a correct understanding of the concept of CBT and they desire more cultural exchanges with visitors.

What can you do during your visit to the long neck tribe in Thailand?

Huay Pu Keng offers visitors a chance to engage in workshops led by Karenni artisans in making a brass bracelet, bamboo cup, water bottle or traditional bell. Furthermore, guests visiting the long neck tribe can try their hand at weaving or spend a full day learning how to carve a Kayan doll from wood. Visitors can also learn about the “Kay Htoe Boe” festival (Kayan new year), the biggest annual celebration. And hikes can be organized to the nearby Karenni village of Huay Sua Thao.

long neck tribe in Thailand

When visiting the long neck tribe it is also possible to learn more about medicinal plants in the hilly jungle surrounding the village and plant trees with the villagers. It is their Mother’s day tradition to do so, but it is important for the environment to plant trees more regularly. To keep the village clean, they organise regular cleanups with visitors and the community.

If it is farming season, visitors can join villagers to the fields, where they grow black sesame, which is very valuable. Some of it is used for their own consumption, but most of it is sold. They also go into the forest to pick mushrooms and bamboo shoots.

Another peculiarity of Karenni cuisine is that they eat edible insects. They put wet flour on a stick to attract them. Not faint-hearted visitors are welcome to try it themselves!

There are so many activities that 1 day is literally too short! Therefore, homestay and dining options are also available in the village. The longer you stay, the more you can benefit the local community through cultural exchange and tourist spending. It is a truly immersive experience and it is one that you will never forget!

The economic impacts of your visit are huge! The Karenni people can make a living and invest money in health care and education while visitors acquire a memorable experience. Furthermore, community-based tourism also fosters respect and understanding between ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’. It is often the highlight of the trip and can even be transformational and life-changing. That being said, it is no surprise that the interest in CBT is growing rapidly.

If you would like more information on the workshops and other activities possible in Huay Pu Keng, please have a look at the Fair Tourism website. Here you can also find the tour operators that offer the CBT activities to their clients.

Not only Huay Pu Keng is worth the visit, also other places in Mae Hong Son province are waiting for you like Su Tong Pae bridgeDoi Inthanon National ParkChang Chill Elephant SanctuaryMae Hong Son town and the countless jungle caves and waterfalls. Mae Hong Son is the most mountainous region of Thailand with more than 80% covered in pristine nature. This is a unique and special experience, you will not encounter many other tourists in Mae Hong Son, as the province is not well-known yet to international visitors.

Should you visit the famous long neck tribe in Thailand?

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and that you are now more informed on whether you should (or shouldn’t) visit the long neck tribe in Thailand. As you can see, there are some fantastic community-based tourism initiatives that have been implemented here and the tourism management of the area is now far better than it once was! Should you visit the long-neck tribes in Thailand? Yes, you absolutely should!

Further reading

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