Photo: Some have lived here for generations.

Huay Sua Tao and visiting the Kayan people

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The nearby Kayan village of Huay Sua Tao is a popular highlight on many peoples’ Mae Hong Son itineraries so we’ll try and kill two birds with one stone here and describe a visit to this easily accessible village with a broader commentary on both the ethnic group and our take on the ethics of visiting their villages.

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 Giraffes”, 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 Progressive Party, (KNPP) along with its military wing the Karenni Army, has struggled against the Burmese government (and army) for self-determination since 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.

A Kayan woman poses for a photo. Photo taken in or around Huay Sua Tao and visiting the Kayan people, Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

A Kayan woman poses for a photo. Photo: Mark Ord

Red Karen now inhabit 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 generations, while others are recent arrivals from the strife. The Kayan sub-group were parcel to these events and many also found themselves as refugees in Thailand.

Thai authorities in former times 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, has also struggled for autonomy from the Burmese since as far back as 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 in, if not exactly model villages, villages rather than just camps, where they were encouraged to sell their handicrafts to paying visitors. Initial sites 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 even 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 middlemen and the Karenni Army, creating what we felt were effectively human zoos. However, the situation seems to have changed somewhat in several respects in Mae Hong Son and with it, our opinions.

Firstly, while there are newer and more gratuitously created “villages” in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai which we would not recommend visiting the Mae Hong Son ones are today well-established and genuine villages housing several generations of Kayan including many inhabitants who were actually born there. Some residents then have Thai citizenship and aren’t even technically refuges any longer. Huay Sua Tao now has an adjacent village area where residents live unhindered by visitors with the original constructions now forming a separate souvenir and handicraft market.

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 untrue. Many people in these villages have never been to Burma, only know Thailand and aspire to Thai rather than Burmese citizenship and many young Kayan, surrounded by Thai media and Thai culture, dream of visiting Bangkok or Chiang Mai rather than say Loikaw. The main struggle these days—which goes for many ethnic minorities in northern Thailand—is for the Thai government to accept that these people deserve full Thai citizenship.

There are two long-established and easily accessed villages lying west of Mae Hong Son: Huay Phu Kaeng, which can be reached by a 30-minute boat ride down the Pai River and Huay Sua Tao, a 17-kilometre drive along a sealed road. The latter is the most frequently visited. Residents of a third village, Ban Nai Soi, also to the west of town have relocated elsewhere.

The scenic road to Huay Sua Tao is now sealed but it does include numerous potentially slippery fords so take care on a motorbike. There is still a 250 baht entrance fee but villagers concurred with ticket vendors in saying that these days, while a portion was allocated to the district authorities to cover road maintenance and utilities most of that did genuinely go to the residents.

The inhabitants, many with only limited employment opportunities, do need that money as well as the cash they make from souvenir sales. To put any perceived voyeuristic aspects in context; on a visit to another Kayan village with an English friend who happened to have a pierced tongue, Long-Neck women asked to take photos on their cell-phones. A Kayan matriarch with several kilos of brass around her neck stared intently at the tongue and lip studs and said; “ooh—that must be really uncomfortable”!

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How to get there
For Sua Tao
Take the road south out of town towards the Pai River but instead of turning left to the boat jetty continue to the bridge. Continue on this lane for 12 kilometres or so and you’ll find the village.

For Huay Phu Keng
Boats leave from Tha Huay Dua costing around 600 baht for the return trip plus waiting time.

Huay Sua Tao and visiting the Kayan people
North and south of Mae Hong Son town
Mo–Su: 08:00–17:00
Admission: 250 baht

Location map for Huay Sua Tao and visiting the Kayan people

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