Visiting the Kayan (Long-neck) people

A personal decision

No pic at the moment -- Sorry!

What we say: 2 stars

The Long-neck women are one of the main reasons tourists come to Mae Hong Son. These refugees from Burma's Karenni state, located just over the border from Mae Hong Son, are called Padaung in Burmese, but this is also an inappropriate label because the Burmese are an occupying army in the state. In their own language, this ethnic group is called Kayan.

The price for visiting these villages is 250B (plus the cost of taking a boat in the case of Huay Phu Keang). Half of this money goes to the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP, the main opposition force to Burmese control in Karenni state). The remainder goes to the Thai Ministry of the Interior. The women receive 500B each month for wearing the rings as children and 1,500B when they reach adulthood. It is a level of financial security unheard of for the average refugee family.

The decision about whether or not to visit the village can be a difficult one. Many people believe that paying to see and take pictures of women physically disfigure themselves is wrong. The tradition of donning the neck rings is largely dying out in Kayan areas. If you talk to many of the Kayan people, however, you will find that despite the difficulties they face in Thailand, for now their prospects in tourist villages are better than their prospects inside Karenni state. At the same time, most of them would like to return home to Karenni state when there is peace or a cease-fire.

The refugees in these villages represent only a small handful of the 20,000 living in the refugee camp on the other side of the mountain. They are allowed a great deal of freedom compared to the non-Kayan refugees and some of the money that they earn goes to help all the refugees. Some people believe that it is the tourist money that these women attract that allows all the Karenni refugees to stay in Thailand. A lot rests on those neck-rings.

If you do decide to visit this or other local villages, you may find that it feels like you are visiting a human zoo. This feeling is only exacerbated if you are in or near a large tour group, snapping and taping away with little or no regard for the fact that the village is somebody's home. If this feeling bothers you, then try to not encourage it. Plan to spend a day or a few days in one village and actually sit down and talk to people and learn about their lives. Take pictures only after you've asked, ask for an address, and send copies to the person in the picture. Buy locally-made products and donate to the school (but don't interrupt the lessons). Don't hand-out sweets to the children (you probably wouldn't walk around handing out sweets to children on the streets of your own country). If you want to make a donation, bring books, paper, pencils, crayons, soap, toothpaste, and other stationery or toiletries in bulk to the head teacher at the school or the village leader (ask around the village, everyone knows each other). All the villages also have monetary donation boxes.

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A scattering of camps in the surrounding area
Last updated: 3rd September, 2009

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