There are different concepts of beauty but for me none is as eccentric and rather ‘life-threatening’ as that of the Kayan tribe. During my naïve years in my early twenties, I visited the controversial ethnic tourist village in northern Thailand that showcases the long-necked Kayan women as part of our tour package, unconscious of the ethical issues around it. I didn’t know then that there are existing activism against the exploitation of these women for tourism purposes. My preconceptions then was that these women migrated to Thailand along with their tribe to escape their hard life in Burma, used their tribe’s unique custom where women wear brass-necklaces to attract tourists which eventually became their top source of income — entry to their tribe village costs THB300 back in 2011. Little did I know that aside from the health problems and life risks these women suffer because of this particular custom, their tribe also face complex issues around citizenship and migration.
The Kayan tribe, a sub-group of Karenni tribe, is one of the six ‘hill tribes’ in northern Thailand. They are refugees from Myanmar who fled from the conflict. As refugees they continue to suffer from dire poverty, lack of healthcare and basic services including education. They also receive unequal share from the tourism profit. Some of them also experience difficulties in integrating with Thai society probably because geographically they live mostly in hills farther from Thai homes and customarily they have a more backward way of life as opposed to Thais who have embraced modernisation. Such ‘identity crisis’ is worse among young Kayans who grow up between ‘two worlds’.
Human museum or human zoo
Some call the Kayan village a human museum or human zoo because the main tourist attractions are the girls and women wearing brass rings on their neck. Kayan girls begin to wear brass rings as early as 5 years old; more rings are gradually added as they age. It is believed that the woman with the most number of rings is considered the most beautiful.
Wearing rings is part of Kayan tribe’s traditional customs. Some believe that wearing the rings will ward off evil spirits. Some think that the rings will protect the girls from being bitten by a tiger. Some also say that village men use this tradition to keep their wives from having affairs as husbands would punish their wife by removing the rings. In doing so, Kayan women are left bedridden as their head can’t stand without the rings.
I was told that the rings weigh as much as 14 kilos. A replica is made available for tourists to carry so they will know how heavy they are; I could barely carry it longer with both hands! They also have a lighter version of the rings that visitors can wear to take photos with.
Should one visit the Kayan village?
During one of our intensive classes on human rights of migrants, my classmate brought up the question on whether we should visit the village knowing that some tour agencies exploited these women without giving them a fair share of the profit. Although the issues they face are very complex, a sad truth remains that because of their refugee status this women will not find a job in Thailand and tourism in their village remains their only form of livelihood. As such, the question is not whether we should visit them or not but how we can help them through our visit.
One way to directly help the Kayans is to purchase their products. If you have spare cash, directly giving it to them after you take their photo will bring joy to their pretty faces.
We went to a village with less tourists. At the entrance before you pass through the bamboo bridge were booths lined up where they display their handicrafts for sale. I didn’t know then that young girls also wear the rings so I was a bit shocked when I saw them. At first they were indifferent to our presence which made me uncomfortable because I felt we were invading their peace, but when I smiled and attempted a conversation they smiled back making me feel at ease. Some women vendors belong to another tribe so they don’t wear the rings.
How to get there?
I visited the village in 2011 through a tour agency so I cannot be of much help to adventurers who would prefer to commute. Although I remember that we passed through narrow roads along bushes which is said to be inhabited by snakes. Even if I speak a little bit of Pasathai, I may still find it harder to reach the area so going through a tour agency may be the most convenient option.