Kayan or “Long Neck Karen”

Kayan or “Long Neck Karen”

You can't talk about the Kayan without first talking about their name. “Long Neck Karen” is kind of inevitable since the main distinguishing feature of this ethnic group is undeniably the ringed necks of some of the group’s women and girls, but Karen is not strictly accurate.

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They are in fact a subgroup of a subgroup of a subgroup of an ethnic group — if that’s clear? They belong to the Kayan Lahwi of the Kayan minority, who are a part of the Karenni (or Red Karen), who are obviously an element of the larger Karen family. (Okay, so they are Karen then!)

They are also known as the Padaung, which is the name the Shan people have given them, but which apparently they’re not very keen on. (We assume it’s derogatory in some way — as for instance, the Thai name Meo for the Hmong people is considered by them to be pejorative.)

Kayan woman. Photo by: Mark Ord.
Kayan woman. Photo: Mark Ord

Secondly, we have stretched a point by placing them in the North Thailand’s ethnic minorities category as well, since they are not a people who are at all indigenous to Thailand. They originate, in recent times at least, from Burma’s Kayah State, located southwest of Shan State between Lake Inle and Mae Hong Song province of northwest Thailand. (Indeed some Kayan Lahwi have now resettled of their own accord around Lake Inle in order to take advantage of the tourism boom at that popular destination.) Although strictly speaking all “hill-tribe” groups in Thailand, with the exception of the Karen, have migrated into the kingdom over the last century or so due to problems in Yunnan, Burma and Laos, so they are just older refugees themselves, even if many now have Thai citizenship.

Those Kayans moving to Thailand over the last couple of decades have done so of their own accord only in the sense that they are fleeing fighting between the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF) and the Burmese military — Thai Kayans have refugee status only and all Kayan villages in Thailand are de facto refugee camps.

Currently there are thought to be some 1,000 or so Kayan refugees living in several villages in Mae Hong Song province. One is near Tha Ton in the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai border area and another located more recently to Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district. Cynics point out that the latter’s relocation is very convenient for nearby Chiang Mai’s tourist industry.

Entrance fees are charged to tourists wishing to visit these villages. We haven’t been recently but last time we looked it was around 250 baht per person (also see our Mae Hong Son post), though often this would be incorporated into a price for a day tour package.

There are varying accounts as to where the money ends up, and maybe it depends on which village, but generally speaking the fees are split between the local authorities, the villagers themselves and usually an intermediary local businessperson; some reports claim a cut also goes to the KNPLF.

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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.

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