Should you visit the Kayan or "Long Neck Karen"?

What we say: 3.5 stars

After looking at the background to the Kayan or “Long Neck Karen”, we’ll now deal with the question of “Should you visit the Kayan or “Long Neck Karen” by looking at some of the specific pros and cons, and arguments for and against visiting the villages where these people live.

Where's the zoo?

Where's the zoo?

For us, one of the biggest problems is the actual status of the Kayan in Thailand, which is far from clear and indeed seems to change according to Thai authorities as to how it suits them best. We would maintain that most Kayan in northern Thailand, as with Burmese Mon, Karen and Shan in camps in Kanchanaburi and Tak provinces are fleeing fighting between the respective armed wings of their autonomy/independence movements and the government armed forces, or oppression by the Burmese army.

This is a simplified way of looking at things and there is also inter-group fighting — for instance between the pro-government Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the predominantly Christian anti-government Karen National Union (KNU) as well as the Wa and Shan. Some fighting is certainly over control of the lucrative drugs trade plus some minority peoples are fleeing from being recruited into their respective ethnic groups’ armed forces some of whom are distinctly young.

Worryingly, when the UNHCR began offering resettlement in third countries for some Kayan refugees, the Thai authorities refused, claiming that they were economic migrants and not real refugees, so therefore ineligible for resettlement. They had to remain in their tourist villages. (See more details here.)

Refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border near Mae Sot (this photo from mid 90s, camp has since burnt down)

Refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border near Mae Sot (this photo from mid 90s, camp has since burnt down)

Also distressing is the fact that “regular” or non-“long-neck” Karen refugees fleeing over the border as Burmese troops burn their villages are reported to sometimes be refused entrance into Thailand and unceremoniously shoved back across the border to face advancing Burmese forces — apparently they are not tourist-worthy, while a woman crossing the border with neck rings is welcomed with open arms.

Mon and Karen refugees allowed to cross the border live in vast, sometimes squalid refugee camps, while the Kayan are permitted to live in traditional style villages — again for tourism purposes.

A second major area of controversy are the rings themselves. The drastic pressure on the shoulders, collar bones and vertebrae caused by the wearing of such rings is a form of fairly severe self-mutilation (although medical opinion as to the long-term affects does seem to vary). Yes, it is traditional among the Kayan, but then genital mutilation of girls in certain north and central African countries is traditional too yet clearly abhorrent. Note also that traditionally it is relatively rare for girls to wear the neck rings, and many Kayan women pass their whole lives without ever wearing any. It’s usually reserved for girls born under certain auspicious conditions if we understand correctly, whereas reports are that many Kayan girls in Thai villages are under pressure to wear the rings.

The real attraction of trekking in Thailand.

The real attraction of trekking in Thailand.

Note while some medical opinion states that removal of the rings is impossible since the neck muscles can no longer support the head, we have seen reports of Kayan women removing their rings and not dropping down instantly dead. (Some women reportedly removed rings in protest at the rejection of UNHCR resettlement offers.)

Yes, the Kayan may be better off in these tourist villages earning a relatively reasonable living rather than being caught in the cross fire between Burmese and Karenni troops but there is, as we’ve seen above, a lingering suspicion that, whether they do like it or not, they are more or less confined by Thai authorities in what do amount to human zoos.

Apart from the political, ethical and medical reasons outlined above, many people simply do not feel comfortable when they’re actually in such villages. Yes, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when faced with a bunch of bored, listless, “deformed” girls and women selling tatty souvenirs and looking for tips by posing for pictures, things can start to feel very uncomfortable. Going with a guide can be hit and miss as well, since you’ve got as much chance of getting a sympathetic guide who can help provide some meaningful interaction with the locals as you have of getting another who’s just going through the motions, wants to get their tip and clear out of the dirty village to the nearest karaoke bar.

Many foreign-run tour companies do not condone trips to long-neck villages (and indeed my north Thai-based tour company All Points East actively boycotts the villages, since it clearly isn’t compatible to any responsible tourism ethic), though many Thai-based companies are much less discriminating.

Sunset over the Yuam river, Mae Sariang.

Sunset over the Yuam river, Mae Sariang.

We’ve not been able to identify many pros — but if you do wish to visit, at least have a think before you go. Numerous articles are around elsewhere on the web in favour of visiting or listing the pros of seeing the villages, such this one; so it’s up to you of course, but certainly plenty of other things to do in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai beckon instead.

Last updated: 30th January, 2015

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
Agoda logo
best price guarantee

Photo gallery

Photo for

Jump to a destination

Sights in Chiang Mai