Visiting Kayan Villages in Thailand

kayan people of Thailand

Visit an authentic long neck hilltribe village! A poster in Chiang Mai advertised that you will visit a village that will give you an insight into the ‘real Thailand.’ Tucked into forested hillside pockets a while outside Chiang Mai, the village is six or seven small bamboo houses hunkered together, within a fence.  There are a couple of chickens. Nothing too out of the ordinary so far, except that you have to pay to enter the village. 

 

A woman sitting outside her house rises and moves forward to greet you.  She walks carefully, and as she gets closer she pulls a towel away from her neck.  Her neck is longer, brighter: above her traditional clothing, she is wearing a deep band of brass rings that glitter in the sun and make her neck appear unusually long.  She smiles and gestures toward a stall of beautiful weavings and brass jewelry.

 As you move further into the village, you see that all of the women here are wearing rings on their neck.  Even the small children wear three or so rings.  It’s fascinating!  It’s so different!  You take a few photos with the women who smile obligingly, and then you leave. 

Only after you drive away from the village does it hit you that you only really saw one man in the village, holding a baby.  That strikes you as kind of weird.  Then you begin to wonder why there were walls around that village.  And why did you have to pay to get in?  You never paid to visit other hilltribe villages around Chiang Mai.

You’re right to feel discomfited.  These ‘long neck’ villages are a controversial subject here in Thailand, and there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.  First, those rings: they’re not rings.  It’s one heavy coil that’s wound on.  Every few years, the coil is taken off and replaced with a new one a little longer.  It’s extremely uncomfortable for the women to remove them, especially once they’re older and the coil is very long and heavy.  Because its weight rests on the clavicle and pushes it down, the trapezius muscles are damaged: this gives the appearance of a longer, more graceful neck.  When the women take off their coils for medical examinations or if they ever get to leave the village, their necks are bruised, weak and discoloured.  

The women in those village aren’t representatives of ‘the real Thailand,’ either.   Kayan people are usually stateless people from Myanmar who lack refugee status .  Authorities generally turn a blind eye, since the Kayan villages  are great for the tourism industry.  Interestingly, many of the yonder women didn’t wear the brass coil before they arrived in Thailand, because it’s so dangerous to belong to an ethnic minority group in Myanmar. 

  The Kayan families need to pay for everything they need with the money they make from selling their crafts.  It’s nigh on impossible for the Kayan women to get an education, as they lack documentation and may not be fluent in Thai language. 

Some visitors feel that they shouldn’t visit these villages at all, and that’s an understandable conviction.  Their argument is that by visiting, you perpetuate the exploitative businesses  Some see the villages as zoos, and the practice of photographic these beautiful women as rude and distasteful.  

 

Having served members of the Kayan community, and having had Kayan girls come through our training program here at The Chai Lai Orchid, we tend to take a slightly different stance.  We support the women in the Kayan village near to us, and want to see them take part in interactions that allow them to keep their dignity and self-sufficiency. The village leader makes it possible for the kids attend the local government school so they can have a change for a better future. These women are not sorry to be here: they’ve fled a genocidal military dictatorship, come to a new country, and learned a new language; they’re often supporting their husbands and sons back in Myanmar; they’re proud of how they are persevering in an adverse situation.  They don’t see their village as a zoo.  It’s their home. 

Because they are lucrative the villages aren’t going to go away anytime soon: and  since the coup in Myanmar the villagers have no home to return to.  If tourists are going to be visiting anyway – we’d much rather they were culturally sensitive and respectful visitors.  Be mindful that you are going into someone’s home; for the time you’re in the village, you’re not a tourist, you are a guest.  Smile and greet the villagers you meet and try to converse with them.  Ask their permission before you take their photograph.  Be patient with their English.  Take enough baht to invest in a few of their stunning, high quality weavings or brass jewelry.  500 THB might not feel like a huge amount to you, but it will go a long way here.  Bring snacks to share, just as you would if you were visiting a friend’s house.  If you want to donate something further, chat to us here at Chai Lai and we’ll help you choose something appropriate that will be useful for the village you’re heading to.

Ultimately, whether you visit or not is up to you.  We just want you to have the facts you need to be able to make an informed decision.

kayan girl
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