The people of the Kayan ethnic group come under many names: most frequently and crudely, ‘Long-Neck Karen’ by local Thais and visitors who don’t know any better; ‘Femmes Girafes’, by the ever tactful French and just ‘Long-Necks’ in certain tourist blurb. They are actually a sub-group of the Red Karen or Karenni ethnic group, and originate from Burma’s Kayah State just across the border from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, where they are also known as the Padaung. The Karenni National Progessive Party, (KNPP) along with its military wing the Karenni Army, struggled against the Burmese government (and army) for self-determination from 1957. Although a tentative peace agreement was concluded with the government in 2012, those 55 years of armed struggle have created a huge refugee problem.
Red Karen now live in wide swathes of hills across Mae Hong Son, into western and northern Chiang Mai and even parts of Lamphun and Lampang provinces. Some have been living in these regions for many generations, while others are recent arrivals from the strife. The Kayan were parcel to these events and many also found themselves as refugees in Thailand.
The Thai government has at best tolerated them and at worst sent them back over the border. The kingdom already had a large indigenous Karen population and huge Karen refugee camps further south in Mae Sot and Umphang districts, where the Karen National Union, representing a different branch of the Karen family, struggled for autonomy from the Burmese beginning in 1947.
Probably ever since the Kayan first started fleeing over the border, certain Thais saw the potential financial benefits of these ‘exotic’ looking people — they were that rare bird, welcome refugees! Certain Kayan families were settled into, not exactly model villages, but villages rather than camps, where they were encouraged to sell their handicrafts to paying visitors. Initial villages were located in Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam districts though in more recent times some have been relocated (presumably to help spread the tourist baht) to parts of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces.
In the past we have been highly critical of visiting these villages: the entry fee charged for each village was rumoured to be divvied up between the local police, Thai middle men and the Karenni Army, creating what we felt was effectively a human zoo. However, the situation seems to have changed somewhat in several respects in Mae Hong Son and with it, our opinions.
Firstly, while newer and more gratuitously created villages in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai still charge entrance fees, most Mae Hong Son villages have stopped, immediately reducing the zoo feel.
While these people are still in theory refugees, their villages have become well established. There are now third, and even fourth, generation families living here and certain Kayan, after presumably long battles with bureaucracy, have even obtained Thai papers. Many people in these villages have never been to Burma, only know Thailand and aspire to Thai rather than Burmese citizenship.
Since the 2012 peace agreement — tentative but holding — Kayan can in theory return to their homeland, though even without the conflict Kayah State remains poor, underdeveloped and village conditions far less comfortable than in their Thai homes. To suggest now that they are kept against their will is largely untrue. Many young Kayan, surrounded by Thai media and Thai culture, dream of visiting firstly Bangkok or Chiang Mai rather than Loikaw. The main struggle these days — which goes for many ethnic minorities in North Thailand — is for the Thai government to accept that these people deserve Thai citizenship. Most are not permitted to leave their ‘home’ province and have to check in every 90 days.
There are three long established and relatively easily accessed villages lying just west of Mae Hong Son: Huay Phu Kaeng, which can only be reached by a 30-minute boat ride down the Pai river; Baan Sob Soi around 25 kilometres away on a rough road, and Huay Sua Tao, a 20-minute boat ride or 17 kilometre drive along a sealed road. The latter is the most frequently visited. Sob Soi these days has fewer residents while Huay Phu Kaeng is harder to reach. There are others further afield.
Today only the most popular village — Huay Sua Tao — charges an entrance fee. We’ve ascertained to the best of our abilities that out of the 250 baht charged, 200 baht actually goes to the village, with 50 baht going to the local council for road maintenance and public utilities. Villagers, with only refugee status, have limited land of their own on which to grow crops, so families are largely supported through tickets and sales of handicrafts to visitors.
While we can’t guarantee no funds are being diverted elsewhere, insofar as the Kayan earn an income largely through tourism, it appears to be financially beneficial to them to have visitors to their villages. (Furthermore one of the local women we chatted to interestingly pointed out that her family needed the extra funds to pay for the complicated legal and bureaucratic processes involved in actually obtaining Thai citizenship for children born in these villages.)
The Kayan with daughters, whom we talked to, said there was no pressure, other than their own tradition, for girls to wear the neck rings and the decision was up to the families or, in enlightened cases, up to the children themselves.
Huay Sua Tao itself consists of a short pedestrian street lined with handicraft stalls, and bamboo and wooden huts behind on a hill slope. You aren’t encouraged to visit the private houses and when we went, vendors on the main street were friendly and chatty — there was certainly no hard sell. Kayan women have traditional looms in their shops so you can see them weaving the sarongs and scarves that they offer for sale. We also saw Hmong women (all the way from Chiang Mai) and Kayaw (aka ‘Long-eared’ Karen) selling in the market as well.
Since, unlike most hilltribe villages in the region, there is a market providing a focal point to your visit, we found this actually less voyeuristic than most other hilltribe villages, no matter the ethnic group, and it was far easier to meet and chat with the people too. Due to years of tourism many vendors speak at least basic English and we spent an hour here chatting while buying a 100-baht scarf. Yes, the women with their brass neck rings do look unusual and they’re well aware of that, but some visitors can look pretty unusual to them too (think: piercing, tattoos). Posing for photos after a polite request is considered a fair exchange. Simply shoving a camera in someone’s face is impolite here or anywhere else, although they are sadly used to it.
At the end of the day, whether you visit or not is up to you, but we are certainly less anti- than we used to be. Unlike many other hilltribe villages in Northern Thailand, it appears that these people actually do want you to be there.
By Mark Ord.