(Last updated on: 02/04/2020)
Have you ever heard of the famous long neck tribe in Thailand? Ever considered visiting this site, popular with tourists?
On the northern Thai border, the ‘long neck tribe’ live in guarded villages. But who are they, why are they there and – more importantly, perhaps – should you visit them? It is a common tourist day out to see the tribe, but there are obvious questions surrounding the ethical side of this kind of tourism.
Let’s take a look at the long neck tribe in Thailand, and whether you should decide to skip the tour on your travels…
Who are the long neck tribe in Thailand?
Officially known as Kayans or the Padaung people, the long neck tribe in Thailand are residents from Kayah State in eastern Myanmar. There has long been internal conflict within Myanmar, and when tensions grew 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’. Around 500 of them remain on the border to this day, unable to move out of the villages due to Thai laws around refugee status and economic migrants.
The Kayan people, therefore, do not have citizenship status – and their access to amenities such as health care, schools and electricity is limited.
Some history about the tribe
The Kayans, the long neck tribe in Thailand, are 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, currently around 5-600, who live in Thailand. Some Kayans also live in Vietnam and the U.S, though it isn’t known how many.
The tribe originally settled in the Demawso area of Kayah State as far back a 739 AD. 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. This is due to the 18th century Italian missionaries who worked among the tribe at one point.
Why do the long neck tribe in Thailand actually have long necks?
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 simply becomes deformed. This deformity means that the women cannot remove the coils, even if they wanted to, because they no longer have the muscle capacity to support their neck. These women are effectively in-prisoned in their coils.
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.
Many people have wondered over the years what the reason is for the rings. Suggestions include the coils making the women less attractive to other tribes, therefore preventing them from becoming slaves.
It could be that it makes them resemble a dragon. Given the religious associations with dragons, this is a fair assumption. Another reason that has been hypothesised is that the coils protected the women (both literally and metaphorically) from tiger bites.
Do women continue to wear rings around their necks nowadays?
While all of this information is genuine, the long neck tribe in Thailand have other reasons for wearing coils. Were it not for the fact that seeing women wearing brass coils around their necks – commonly known as dragon ladies – brought in the tourist coin, the chances are that the tradition would have long since died out. It is already becoming less common for women to engage with the tradition. Thus, it is hard to know whether the long neck tribe in Thailand are doing so for genuine reasons.
In some ways, it seems that the Kayan women located in Thailand – many of whom live in artificial tourist villages – are choosing to retain their culture because they get paid for it, rather than being paid for something they would be doing anyway.
The Thai border is not the original home of the tribe. Therefore it wouldn’t be surprising for them to move away from a tradition that is physically painful and also quite demoralising. But they have chosen to continue wearing brass rings around their neck. This is because they know people will pay to see it.
What’s it like to visit the Kayan women?
Tourists who have been to see the long neck tribe in Thailand have often come away feeling disappointed and somewhat guilty. While they think they are being taken to see an authentic display of traditional living, they are really seeing little more than an exotic spectacle that has been completely orchestrated. Not by the women themselves, necessarily, but by the tour companies who have chosen to exploit them for very little in return.
You can take photographs with the women, as though they themselves are an exotic piece of artwork. But for many, it is clear to see that the women are putting on a show. They are living up to what the average western person thinks they should be. It is almost like everything they’re doing, and everything they are, has been exaggerated to satisfy the curiosity of tourists. This is known in the field of tourism as staged authenticity.
Visitors can also buy jewellery and crafts made by the Kayan women. However, it is often very clear (a few days later) that the items were not actually made by the long neck tribe in Thailand themselves. Bracelets will fall apart, and fabric will start to fray. You will come to understand that the overpriced items you bought because you thought you were funding the livelihood of these women were actually made in factories in China and other parts of Thailand.
The ethics of visiting the famous long neck tribe in Thailand
Visiting the long neck tribe in Thailand is little more than going to a human zoo, and paying over the odds for it. You are being exploited, and oftentimes so are the women themselves.
I visited the long neck tribe in Thailand during my backpacking trip of 2012. I was naive and public awareness wasn’t so great then. I didn’t feel good during the trip and I felt worse when I did some research into it afterwards.
If it wasn’t for me, and the many other tourists who visit the long neck tribe in Thailand, these women wouldn’t be living this life. They might be back at home with their families in Myanmar. They might be studying at university. They might have necks that can hold themselves up…
We live in a different world now to the one that I travelled in back in the early noughties. We are more aware now. More aware of our impacts, more aware of our actions and more aware of the consequences.
Are you travelling to northern Thailand soon? DON’T visit the long neck tribe!