Imagine wearing almost 10 pounds of rings around your neck…
There are actual people in Thailand who live that way for their whole lives. They are known as long-neck Kayan tribes or “Padaung” people. And behind their seemingly extraordinary appearances, the long-neck tribes in Thailand have stories to share with the world.
The long neck tradition in Thailand originates from the Kayan women or Padaungs, who are famous for wearing brass coils around their necks that make them have a “giraffe-like” appearance. As the weights of the neck coils push down the collar bone and ribs of the wearer, it creates the illusion of a longer neck than usual.
But there’s more to it than just appearance. Here are all the answers to your questions about long-necked Kayans – where they are originally from, why they wear neck coils, and whether you should or shouldn’t visit their famous tourist villages in Thailand.
Where Are the Long Neck Kayan Tribe Originally From?
The long-necked Kayans are a sub-group of Red Karen people from Myanmar’s Kayah/Karenni region. Around the late 1980s, conflicts and intense civil wars between Karenni rebel forces and Myanmar’s SAC army made them flee from their homes in Myanmar to the Thai borders.
The Thai government permitted them temporary stay under the ‘conflict refugee’ status. As of 2018, approximately 500 Kayans (or Padaungs) lived in the northern Thailand long neck hill tribe villages.
The Kayan people became the center of attention when the photos of long-necked women from the tribe were made known to the world. Tourists began to pick interest in the Thailand long-neck tribes’ traditions. This prompted the Thailand government to create tourism villages eventually around 1985.
To this day, tourists can visit these long-necked tribe villages for around 8-16 USD to take a quick photo with the famous long-necked beauties. These Kayan women are also known as Padaung, translated into ‘long-neck’ – a name fitting for their stretched necks. (Source, Source)
Where Are the Long Neck Tribe in Thailand?
The location of the long neck tribe in Thailand is in the northern parts of Thailand. Several long-neck tribe villages are between the Golden Triangle area (Thai-Myanmar border) and Chiang Mai.
Reasons and Traditions Behind Wearing Neck Coils
Interestingly, not even the Kayan women are sure about the origins of wearing neck coils. Although there is no definitive answer, here are four possible explanations for their purpose and continued existence:
1. Tiger Protection
The first reason is that the Kayan women wear neck coils to prevent tigers from biting their necks.
2. Slavery Prevention
Another possible answer is that these neck coils are worn to prevent the women from being abducted for slavery, as wearing them would make the women less attractive in the eyes of other tribes.
These days, it is suggested that Kayan women wear neck coils for cultural preservation.
Aside from these protective reasons, Kayan people use these neck coils for aesthetic purposes as the belief among the tribe is that the longer the neck of a woman, the more beautiful she is. (Source, Source)
Check out “20 Most Beautiful Thai Women” to learn why Thailand has so many beautiful women.
At What Age Do They Start Wearing Neck Coils?
In general, Kayan girls start to wear coils around their necks and shins by the time they are five or six years old. In some cases, they start from the age of two.
However, this also depends on the family’s wealth because traditionally, the coils are expensive, and not every family in the tribe can afford them.
What Does a Long Neck Symbolize?
Therefore, it is believed among the Kayan people that a long neck symbolizes beauty, wealth, and status, as not everyone in the tribe can afford to wear many neck coils.
In the past, each brass coil cost around 2 U.S. cents. However, these days, it can cost as much as 250 USD or more, depending on the quality of the coils. These neck coils are usually brass and gold alloy and weigh over 20 pounds. (Source, Source)
The Blemishes Behind the Beauty
Behind the world-famous unique beauties of the long-neck tribe, there are some concerns regarding their health, human rights, and the future.
As the coils are heavy, it imposes some serious concerns for the health of Kayan women in the tribe:
Collar bone displacement:
The weights of the neck coils push down the collar bone of the wearer, and it causes the vertebrae in the spine to collapse.
Although not in every case, these neck coils can cause severe injuries to the neck and back. While sleeping, Kayan women have to pad their necks with leaves as a cushion between the skin and the coils to prevent chafing and sores. As a result, it can cause gradual displacement of the collar bone. (Source)
Lack of healthcare and pain relief:
The lack of access to health care and hospitals in the villages where the tribe resides imposes long-term health problems for the Kayan women. Also, it has been found that many Kayan women chew betel nuts and leaves to get some pain relief. These betel nuts are highly addictive and can cause kidney and oral problems.
When the coils are removed:
Another health concern for Kayan women is the possible repercussions when they stop wearing neck coils.
One Kayan lady said in an interview with New York Times that when taking off the brass coils, one can feel a little dizzy and should not walk for one to two minutes afterward. They can also have a slight headache and feel very light as if they’ve been wearing a heavy backpack and suddenly taking it off – due to the weights of neck coils being lifted off the body. (Source)
And although it has been suggested that removing the coils can cause the neck to topple over because it no longer can support the head – this is just a myth. No such instances have been reported. (Source)
2. Human Rights
Some commentators argue that these tourist villages are set up with the wrong intentions. As such, it is widely debated whether tourists should be supporting something exploitative.
Lack of medical care:
Health concerns for the long-neck tribe go beyond the act of wearing coils. Their villages are located in some of the poorest areas of Thailand and lack basic sanitation and medical care. Therefore, the villages can be subject to tropical diseases. Without access to doctors and healthcare practices, there is a risk of severe illness and death. It has been reported that there have been fatalities in the past. (Source)
No coils, no money:
According to reports, many Kayan women are pressured to wear the neck coils against their will as they are a source of income for the tribe’s women. Despite the discomfort and potential health problems, they need to wear neck coils to earn money from tourists who want to see this custom. Allegedly, the women wearing neck coils are given extra salaries. (Source)
Distribution of money:
It has also been suggested that not all the tourists’ funds go directly to the tribe. According to Marie Claire, approximately 40,000 tourists visit the tribe’s villages annually, but the long-neck women earn less than 50 USD per month from selling souvenir trinkets and postcards. (Source)
Silence is golden:
Allegedly, the women in these villages are prevented from discussing their problems with foreign visitors. Village owners believe this would contradict the traditional lifeways the tribe is renowned for. Therefore, weakening the tourism experience. It has been suggested that anyone found expressing their grievances to the public may receive a reduced salary. (Source)
Tradition over modernity:
Apparently, they are also prevented from using anything modern because the village owners think it damages the traditional image of the tribe and fear tourists will stop visiting. As a result, many Kayan people do not have the same freedoms and access to everyday technology, such as computers, cell phones, and the internet. (Source)
3. The Future
The future of the Kayan people remains uncertain due to issues surrounding their residential status. Some residents of the tourist villages have received full Thai citizenship or I.D. cards that allow them free movement in the country. Whereas Kayan in the refugee camps has not been issued such paperwork (Source, Source)
Unclear refugee status:
Over the decades, there has been a lack of clarity over the Kayans’ refugee status, whether they are considered “real refugees” or economic migrants. To this day, it is difficult for some to get other jobs outside of the tourist villages.
And without citizenship, they will continue to have limited access to fundamental utilities such as health care, education, and employment opportunities. Whatsmore as an ethnic group, they do not qualify for special assistance, for example, government support during the pandemic. (Source)
In the past, it has been reported that long-neck families received resettlement offers from third countries (such as New Zealand and Finland) as part of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) program and operations in Thailand. However, getting the necessary exit permits was problematic. (Source)
But over the last decade, the Thai government started to allow Kayan in the villages to move to the refugee camps and apply for resettlement in a third country. The New York Times communicated in 2020 that “scores of Kayan” have resettled in New Zealand, Finland, the U.S., and other countries.
So, things are changing.
In fact, before the pandemic in 2019, the UNHCR announced that 300 refugees – most of Kayah/Karenni ethnicity were returning home to Myanmar. (Source)
Has the Pandemic Changed the Perspective?
As the Kayans largely depend on tourists as their source of income, the global travel restrictions brought on by Covid-19 significantly impacted them.
In an interview with Nikkei Asia, a long-necked woman named “Mu Ei” said that her family’s only income during the lockdown was what her husband earned from working at a nearby construction site, around 300 THB (8 – 9 USD) per day.
This economic hardship forced many Kayan families to abandon the village and head back to Myanmar to find farm work. Of the 20 original families who lived there, only three families stayed behind.
Whatsmore the lack of tourism prompted village owners to close down the tourist villages, resulting in families having to move between villages during this time. (Source)
The pandemic and lack of tourists have resulted in no income and homelessness.
The pandemic and lack of tourists has resulted in no income and homelessness for the Kayan Long Neck’s. This poses the hard question, what would life be like for them without the tourism industry?
Jittrapon Kaicome, a photojournalist, based in Chiang Mai, reported during the pandemic that “without visitors, they are living in limbo.” With empty villages, closed souvenir stalls, and ultimately, no jobs – there has been a distinct loss of livelihood that once was. (Source)
Therefore, it would be incorrect to think that these tourist villages have no benefit to them whatsoever.
Should You Visit the Long-Necked Tribe’s Villages?
Ever since the human rights issues in these villages have been made public, the topic of whether tourists should visit the long-neck villages in Thailand has received contrasting opinions.
Some have argued that tourists should refrain from visiting these “human zoos,” as the money does not go directly to the tribe’s people.
Others have pointed out that tourism is the primary source of income for most, if not all, of the villagers. As proven by the recent pandemic – if nobody visits there, they will be deprived of income.
Even the tribe people living there have different opinions. The new generation chooses not to wear the coils, have career aspirations, and yearns for freedom. In contrast, others are hurt by the negativity, want to preserve their culture, and wish to stay in Thailand.
How to Plan Your Visit to Long-Neck Tribe in Thailand
Suppose you have decided to visit the long-necked tribe village. In that case, there are some things you need to know beforehand to make your visit as ethical and meaningful as possible.
Here are some tips on how to plan your visit to long-neck women’s villages in Thailand:
1. Do Your Research
Doing some research before you book a trip to the villages is essential. You should find a responsible tour company to ensure a socially responsible visit.
And be careful if you decide to hire private guides as they can bring you to their own villages, which means that you won’t get to truly experience the lives of the long-neck women in their most genuine forms.
2. Keep in Mind That Its a Business
As mentioned above, these tribe villages are essentially geared toward tourists. Only a small portion of the money goes to the tribe. If you want to ensure that your money will benefit the villagers directly, a better option is to support the long-necked women by purchasing the trinkets and handicrafts they sell, as most of their incomes come from this.
If you wanted to be insistent, you could request that your entrance fee be paid directly to the chief of the village instead of a third-party organizer. Although, this may be an uncomfortable situation. (Source)
3. Focus on the Experience
The most important thing anyone who decides to visit these long-necked tribe villages should understand is to focus on understanding the lives of Kayans and how to help them.
The goal of visiting long-necked women should not be to take photos so one can brag about it when they return home.
It should be to learn more about the new culture and understand the Kayans’ stories about their livelihoods. (Source)
There you have it – the origins of the Kayan tribe and the struggles behind their world-famous long-necked beauties.
To this day, the long-necked women live in refugee camps along the Thailand borders. They rely on tourists and international NGOs for their survival.
So, are these tourist villages good or bad? That’s for you to decide.
Whatever your opinion, we can all agree that everyone deserves easy access to basic human needs like health care, education, and job opportunities.
As for whether or not you should go and visit the long-neck tribe in Thailand, this continues to be an endless dilemma – both for the tourists and the tribe people.