Memos from Asia

The Past, Present, and Future of the Kayan’s Distinctive Beauty in Thailand

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The mark of identity of some ethnic groups in Asian countries, usually know for distinctive and unique, varies from each own areas and cultural roots. From the famous ones to the secret ones, they always make us very astonished.

The symbols they mark and decorate to their body and costume, actually tell their own origin story and say to the world who they are.

Bagan Myanmar – October 29 2013; Two Kayan women with brass rings around necks one weaving while other in selective focus sitting wall looks on.

Far away in the remote village bounding in the border of Northern Thailand and Northeast Myanmar, there is one of the most distinctive, weirdest masks of identity in the world.

It is a long necked-people of Kayan tribe, in which almost all women in the group always wear the sizeably heavy brass on their necks. It doesn’t make their necks longer, but instead, the weight of the brass pushes their shoulders to be lower than average. So it seems like they have longer necks.

The Kayan people have originated from Myanmar. They have called Paduang in Shan culture for the women in the tribe who put the long brass neck coils. But those who migrant across the border to Mae Hong Son, Thailand, prefer everyone to call them the Kayan.

Many Kayans move to Thailand due to the Myanmar military’s conflicts in the late 1980s to 1990s. People who fled to Thailand as refugees during the civil war in the 1990s began to open up their lives to tourists. Now, they mostly populate in Shan state and Kayah State while some groups went across the border to Thailand. Some fled far to Vietnam, and the USA. The famous tourist to Kayan Villages is in Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand, such as Huay Pu Keng, Huay Seau Tao, and Ban Nai Soi.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand – 6th February 2019: Karen long necked woman. The first brass ring is added at the age of 5,

History of Kayan Women

The history of Kayan women has started to wear the brass neck is unclear. To this day, however, this tradition continues. Nowadays there are young women who don’t wear the brass all the time, and others who have never worn it in their lives.

Some said that it originated to protect the tiger attack when walking into the forest. While others said it protect kidnapping from the other tribes by fading their beauties (Joshua Project). The most said is that the brass was a symbol of beauty and wealth, which they were proud of. Just as there are many different characteristics of a pretty woman that we now think of as beautiful, the long neck was considered a symbol of beauty in this tribe.

Local houses at Long Neck village, northern Thailand

They rarely remove the brass for cleaning. When needing to remove, they must do it very slowly because it would make a fatal injury to the neck bone. Those who bare the brass from the neck must put it again as very fast to make their necks keep in shape.

Long Neck Ring, Thailand, Baang Tong Luang Village, Chiang Mai City. March 08, 2020

Since some Kayan groups fled to Thailand in recent decades, the local government has been using this tradition as a tourism resource. Many tourists come to their villages in Northern Thailand to witness this astonishing tradition that brings many government incomes.

This also gives the villagers the opportunity to let the long-necked women sell their handicrafts. Some women can play musical instruments and sell their traditional records in front of their homes.

Karen tribe from the Padaung tribe in Mae Hong Son on July 22, 2013.

While the mass tourist enjoys traveling to the villages every year, some have argued for the protection of the human rights of the Kayan people, in criticizing such tourism.

Such people have criticized this business as being like a human zoo. They cite that the women from the villages in Thailand continue this culture only to gain income from their tourists, and they would do anything for the money.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand – July 22, 2013: Karen tribe woman from the Padaung tribe in Mae Hong Son on July 22, 2013. Karen people wear rings on their neck from as young as five.

That’s just because many villagers, both men, and women are not allowed to get a Thai ID card. They have lacked most of the living facilities in Thailand. Also, with their economy suffering due to non-legal citizenship, everything in the village turns out to be in capitalism logical. The tribe receives only a small portion of the consumption of tourists visiting the village.

To decrease this problem and help the community, some local organizations start to promote the ecotourism for the Kayan people in Thailand. Help them receive more profit and retain their traditional way of life by telling their culture to the world.

Tourists taking selfies at famous long neck tribe people village in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai, Thailand – November 05, 2017.

The New Hope for Original Kayan Long Necked People in Myanmar

A woman of Kayan shot in February 2007. Photo by Thanakrit Pongpittayut

While efforts to maintain the village of Mae Hong Son in Thailand are underway, nowadays, the old root Kayan group, which still lives in Myanmar, has dealt with the armed force. They established a peace agreement with the country after their long battle with the military.

Kayah State, which was in a state of civil war, banned tourists for a while after the ceasefire was achieved. However, the ban on tourists was lifted in 2014. Until 2018, tourists had to get permission from the relevant authorities to enter the area, but from 2018, tourists were free to visit.

Loikaw, Myanmar – May 25, 2016: Padaung (Karen) long neck woman selling goods in brass rings around the neck in traditional clothes on the Demawso market

Since then, tours to Kayan villages have become very popular in Myanmar. This is a trip to visit the villages where they have lived for many years, not new villages built in later generations like the ones in Thailand.

The Kayan people in Myanmar have lived happier and calmer with better hope for their future. They mostly located in the town of Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State. This Kayan community is the real authentic for the tribe. It is vast and more significant compares to the villages in Thailand.

Many Kayans from Mae Hong Son come across the border from Thailand back to Loikaw, return to their hometown and meet their parting family after the war has ended. The number of visitors has been increasing to Kayah in recent years. People from other corners of the globe start to know of this Myanmar cultural heritage that they want to reserve.

Pan Pet, Myanmar – May 25, 2016: Rural life of Padaung (Karen) hill tribe village in Myanmar. Senior long neck woman in brass rings around her neck.

Now the Kayan people of Myanmar and Thailand are saying the same thing. They want to be reunited. They want to return to their homeland together once again. With the same Myanmar cultural roots, they want to protect their unique identity and to be proud of their unique mask of beauty. This long tradition will continue to attract people.

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