Ethical Travel: Should You Visit Thailand’s Long Neck Women Villages?

keyan woman

Kayan woman weaving. Photo courtesy of beggs.

For some tourists, seeing the giraffe-like, long neck women Kayans may seem like just another stop on a Thailand adventure of a lifetime. Many tourist agencies stop by these hill villages between jeep rides through snake-infested jungles and tours of elegant temples. Visitors pile out for a quick photo opportunity with exotic-looking women before tour guides shuttle the group to the next destination.

Who are these women? And should you support this controversial tourism attraction?

kayan child

Kayan child. Photo courtesy of archer10(Dennis).

Who Are The Kayans?

Two decades ago, an intensifying civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army caused Kayar residents to flee Myanmar. Thailand granted the Kayan temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status. Now, the 500 or so Kayans (also known as Padaung people) live in guarded villages on the northern Thai border.

The tribe has a custom where some women wearing rings to create the appearance of a long neck. This exotic tradition inspired the creation of tourism villages in 1985. Some Padaung moved to these artificial hill tribe residencies with work permits to make a living on tourism. But without citizenship, Kayans have limited access to utilities such as electricity, roads, health care and schools for education. Furthermore, Thai authorities refuse to allow Kayans to resettle outside tourist villages, claiming they are economic migrants and not real refugees.

Silent Hopes! from Zin Video on Vimeo.

The Rings

Kayan long neck women wear the rings from childhood, starting with four or five, and adding more annually as they acclimate to the increased weight. Coils weighing up to 25 pounds depress the chest and shoulders. This creates the illusion of disembodied head hovering over a shimmering pedestal of gold rings.  Contrary to popular belief, the coils don’t lengthen the neck itself and thus can be removed without the neck snapping. Yet, women still wear these coils year round with few exceptions, even while sleeping.

The origin of the tradition mystifies even the Kayans. An ancient legend claims rings protected villagers from tiger attacks, since the cats attack victims at the neck. Another theory said the rings helped ward off men from rival tribes by lessening the women’s beauty. Today, people believe the opposite– the longer their neck, the more beautiful the woman—and Kayans wear the golden coils as an accessory. According to the Silent Hopes documentary (shown above), some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living. Human rights groups claim the refugee status exploits women who can’t find other work.

Keyan woman

Kayan woman. Photo courtesy of beggs.

Hill Tribe Tourism

An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, neck-ring-wearing-women sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. Residents receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales, and women wearing brass rings earn an extra salary. Village owners decrease wages if women discuss their plight with visitors or use anything modern, like cell phones or computers.

While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.

Although the ethics of this arrangement makes some travelers uncomfortable, each day, vanloads of curious foreigners still visit long neck villages. Many foreign-run companies discourage these trips but most Thai-based companies don’t discriminate. Over a half-dozen hill tribes exist in North Thailand and the Chiang Mai province.

kayan artist

Young Kayan artist. Photo courtesy of jurvetson.

Should You Go?

Can you justify ethical travel to these villages?  Yes, if you do your research.  Most women view tourist visits as a way to make a living since their non-resident status limits employment opportunities; however, sensationalizing dress, customs, and unique traditions of these people mean nothing if they are treated inhumanly.

If you chose to visit, follow these recommendations to make it a better experience:
▪ Do your research and find a responsible tour company that will promote a socially responsible visit. Private guides can bring you to their own villages.
▪ Make sure your money benefits the village directly instead of third party companies. If you’re not sure, insist you give money to the chief of the village or support the women by purchasing their handicrafts.
▪ Don’t just stop by for a photo shoot. Try to extend your stay to learn about the people and hear their stories.
▪ Consider volunteering in a village- Border Green Energy Team can arrange such an opportunity.

The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.

Want to take part in tours that benefit local people? Check out Visit.org’s unique non-profit led excursions in Thailand. Some suggestions include:

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Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she travels the world any chance she can get. After four years of semi-nomadic life as she finished her PhD, she's recently moved to Auckland, New Zealand. Despite beginning a more traditional life, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes to swim, do yoga and hike (or "tramp" as they say in New Zealand). Check out Katie's blog to follow her adventures around the world.

8 Comments

  1. That was a really interesting article, Katie. I haven’t been to that part of the world yet but I can imagine myself being interested in those cultures and tribes if/when I go. Nice to understand some background about them and their presence there, and hear both sides of the tourism story. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this article.
    I am currently doing research since I really want to visit hill tribes in Northern Thaïland and I just don’t want to do it wrong.
    Now I’ll go on the search for a long stay in one of those villages 🙂

  3. Katie, after reading your last paragraph I’d love to know why you suggest that visiting villages like this is ethical.
    I have just read Martin Stevenson’s ‘Leave only footprints’ where he draws a completely different conclusion. These villages have been described as ‘human zoos’ by the UNHCR.
    Tourism Concern and Martin highlight the plight of 20 Kayan women who were refused exit visas which would have allowed them to settle overseas under an UNHCR scheme. The suggestion is that the business men who take the bulk of the entry money to these villages didn’t want to lose their nice little earner. The women have been falsely informed that their necks will break if they remove the rings.
    Pretty nearly everyone in the world needs money, is this a valid argument in this case? It seems that at first the Thai Government weren’t too concerned about their plight but then it found a way of making money from the Padaung. Is the government afraid that if they give them rights as citizens that they families would pursue education to higher grades and find employment in other fields than posing for tourists?
    This story is worthy of more detailed research for readers to make their own minds up on this matter.
    http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/index.php?page=news/132/154/Kayan-museum-ordered-to-close.html
    http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/index.php?page=news/29/154/Burmese-refugees-trapped-by-tourism.html

  4. Such a great article. I visited a Kayan village in December and made sure to only purchase directly from the Kayan women. They are amazing people. All survivors….

  5. Great article. Never thought about it that way. We will be there in 2 weeks and will try to follow your tips to make it the most of it always respecting their culture.

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