In June of 1979, National Geographic published an article titled “Anatomy of a Burmese Beauty Secret” by Dr. John M. Keshishian, M.D. The article featured a photo of a woman decked out in full traditional Kayan garb, silver pendants dangling from her hair and ears, red and white shirt embroidered with colourful stitching, neck wrapped in approximately 30 gleaming brass coils. She looks tall and proud, shoulders sloped back, staring straight ahead, and yet her eyes are wet and red, like she might have just cried.
Focused on the apparent physical effects of the heavy brass coils worn by these “Burmese beauties,” the author revealed here for the first time in international media that the rings do not, in fact, elongate the neck; rather, they press down on the chest and clavicle bones. “Each added loop increases pressure downward on the vertebral column,” said Keshishian. “Something had to give – and did.”
Therein began a profound global fascination with the cultural practices of one of Burma’s smallest yet most photographically over-represented tribes: the Kayan. Or technically, the Kayan Lahwi, if we’re referring only to the subgroup that wears the brass neck coils (within which there are several more smaller sub-tribes). Around the world, our collective sense of fascination with the Kayan’s unique standards of beauty knows no end. And yet, the lives of these people remain shrouded in mystery, misconceptions and vague notions of suffering that the torrents of tourist photos and earnest journalistic forays seem unable to fully unravel.
So, what are we missing?
Victims of War
One of the most widely-held misconceptions about the Kayan is that they’re a Thai hill tribe. In fact, the Kayan come exclusively from Burma, a country mired in conflict since its independence from the UK in 1948 – in other words, the world’s longest running civil war. As a result, scores of people from Burma’s innumerable repressed ethnic groups have fled to Thailand.
“What’s important to remember is that the Kayan are refugees,” says Dave Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, they’re a very small ethnic group with very distinct cultural practices, which marks them out not just in the wider world but in their own country. So they’re refugees with the added stigma of being a photogenic oddity.”
Thailand’s relationship with its refugees is a complicated one, fraught with misunderstanding. As per a 2013 report by UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency), Thailand currently hosts 84,900 registered and an estimated 62,000 unregistered asylum-seekers from Burma in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border, but in fact, Thailand is not actually a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This means they don’t officially recognise displaced Burmese as refugees at all. As Mathieson points out, these border sites are technically referred to as “Temporary Holding Centres” rather than refugee camps.
However, most international organisations still use the term, and according to Duncan McArthur, emergency response director of The Border Consortium (TBC), Thailand has “historically displayed far more care and concern than many countries that are signatories.”
So how do the Kayan factor into all of this? According to McArthur, it all started in the mid 1980s, when the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) wanted to promote cultural heritage by establishing Karenni/Kayah State as a tourist attraction for Thais and foreigners. “But after KNPP lost territory due to a major Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) offensive in 1989, this village along with other civilians in the affected areas fled into Thailand,” he says. “That was when Thai businesses first saw the potential of the ‘long necks’ for tourism.”
Today, the Kayan, while still just as displaced as any other ethnic minorities in Thailand, are held apart due to one very clear objective: profit. This seems, on its surface, like a cut and dry case of exploitation, and in many senses, it is. Yet it’s not as simple as just that. (Another thing worth noting is that since Burma has opened up, similar villages have begun to emerge there as well.)
“I have two minds about the tourist villages,” says Mathieson. “On one hand I find it disgraceful, the fact that these war refugees have to commodify their own culture in order to make money to subsist. On the other hand, if you are so aesthetically unique, why not monetise your culture and try to reap some benefits?”
On the Border
About 20 minutes west of downtown Mae Hong Son sits Huay Seau Thao, one of Thailand’s first long neck villages. Mae Hong Son is six hours away from Chiang Mai, but it’s a place worth visiting for anyone keen on learning more about Thailand’s refugee situation. And that’s what I’m here to do.
I wake up early, rent a motorbike and follow my Karen/Burmese translator, Edward (a member of the pro-democracy humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers), around steep curves and over numerous river crossings. Upon arrival, I pay the foreigner admission price of 250 baht to enter. The Thai ladies at the kiosk hand us a receipt and an information sheet, which claims that “the Padaung” (a Shan term for the Kayan that some find offensive) are refugees who have been living in Thailand for over 20 years and that the entrance fee “supports their daily needs such as rice & curry, medical treatment, children’s education, development of their village, and other extra needs.”
We walk down a set of stairs and along a dusty path flanked by stands hawking kitschy t-shirts and cheap-looking jewellery. Then we cross a bridge into what looks like a continuation of the souvenir passage, except this time there are huts stationed behind the souvenir tables and the sellers are wearing traditional Kayan garb and brass coils around their necks. We’ve reached the “village.”
At the end of the narrow, dusty row of thatched huts (past Kayan women chatting, weaving, offering trinkets to the occasional tourist, and generally looking bored), Edward introduces me to a husband and wife. They tell us they are Kayaw, another subgroup of the Karenni tribe, known in tourism lingo as the “Big Ear Karen.” This means that instead of brass neck coils, the women wear colourful beaded necklaces and large ear gauges. In Burma, these groups are separated by culture and geography, but here in this village, Kayaw and Kayan live together.
The couple invites us to sit down on their bamboo porch, smiling and bringing us water, Coca-cola, cigarettes, loose tobacco wrapped in palm leaves and betel nuts for chewing. Several village men gather around to join the conversation, including Sai Aung, a musician who offers us a CD with recordings from his guitar-playing days in Burma.
“Thank you for talking to us,” he says in Burmese. “Most tourists just take pictures and leave.”
I notice two 20-something backpackers shuffling around awkwardly behind us, snapping a few photos and generally looking like they’re not sure what to do with their bodies. One of them wears a bandanna around his head. “Like Rambo!” Sai Aung chuckles as the guy wanders away.
The men tell us that while living here is better than the violence of Burma, Thailand offers little in the way of opportunity. Women who wear their traditional rings are allowed to operate souvenir stalls stocked mostly with items brought in from Chiang Mai, which they must purchase themselves. Occasionally, odd jobs for the men, such as fieldwork and construction, will be posted in nearby areas, but payment is low and inconsistent.
“Our children go to a Thai school in Mae Hong Son, but like us they are not Thai citizens, so when they finish school, they cannot work legally,” the men tell me. One family’s 18-year-old son works as a mahout at an elephant camp in Chiang Mai. They show me a crinkled photograph of a boy sitting on the neck of an elephant as two blonde girls smile warily from a chair on the elephant’s back. The boy is undocumented and makes about 3,000 baht per month as a salary. “Not enough to save,” says his father. “Barely enough to live.”
I ask them if they ever consider going back to Burma. “It’s our country,” says Sai Aung. “Everybody wants to go back to their country.” But the general consensus is that it’s still too dangerous. For now, all they can do is wait and hope.
A Future Deferred
Next, we meet a pretty 30-something Kayan woman, wearing shimmery blue eyeliner and a stack of brass coils. She tells us her name but later asks that we don’t print it, for fear of trouble with the Thai authorities, so I’ll just call her “J.”
J walked here with her family from Burma 20 years ago. For eight days they journeyed through vast jungles and steep mountains, sleeping outside and hiding from the Burmese army.
Upon arrival, the then 12-year-old J and her family lived in the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp for one year, but because of her and her mother’s neck coils, the Thai authorities eventually offered to relocate them to the Huay Seau Thao village, which J says is slightly better because of improved access to medical care (there is a doctor 10 kilometres away).
I ask her about her rings and she tells me they are simply a Kayan tradition of beauty and decoration. She got her first ones in Burma. At the time, her family could not afford to buy the brass, so they had to borrow money from a neighbour – that’s how important it was.
J’s own daughters are still young, and as of now, neither wears the rings. “They’re still deciding,” she explains. “It’s their choice. I would never force them to do anything they don’t want to do.”
As we chat, I notice a women standing nearby whose neck has the elongated appearance of having once been coiled in brass. She wears a simple white t-shirt and black leggings and holds a baby. J glances over and says that even here, it’s a choice, although as most choices do, it comes with consequences. Some women take their rings off, but according to the rules of the village, those without rings will not be allowed to run a souvenir stall, which is pretty much the only way to make any real income around here. Like most refugees, the villagers’ lack of Thai identification bars them from leaving the province legally.
“I’m proud of my tradition,” J says suddenly, switching from Burmese to English, “but I don’t like not being able to go outside.”
Here at the village, J spends most of her days sitting around, occasionally weaving, selling souvenirs and posing for pictures with tourists. Many of the tourists come, take pictures and leave without even buying a souvenir.
J tells me that she receives only 270 baht a month from the authorities, plus 90 each for her children. She was promised 1,500 for wearing the rings, which is the monthly figure typically reported by these villages, but the authorities told her that not enough tourists were coming. Interesting, I think, as I watch several more foreigners wander into the village; knowing that they (like me) paid 250 baht each to enter. I ask J about the “rice & curry” that is supposedly being funded by the entrance fees. She tells me there is no curry and not enough rice.
“I have no idea about the future,” she says. “All I know is that I don’t want my children’s lives to be like mine.”
It Takes a Village
Back in 1997, investigative journalist Andrew Drummond wrote a piece for The Times exposing a particularly awful tourist village in Chiang Mai province. The people living in the camp were reportedly kidnapped from Burma, and the camp was guarded with machine guns and run by shady businessmen with no regard for the miserable people living inside, who had no access to medical care. With the help of Zaw Thet, a Kayan member of a refugee committee in Mae Hong Son, Drummond was able to aid in the release of these villagers. However, he says that now, in 2013, little has changed.
“We closed down the camp and the tourism industry condemned the unscrupulous businessmen,” he told me over the phone. “But nothing actually happened to the people in charge. All the charges were dropped. And today there are more long neck villages than ever, all working illegally. It’s appalling exploitation.”
Today, international media has taken a generally negative stance on long neck tourist villages (and it should be noted that all known long neck villages in Thailand are constructed for tourism). The Tourism Authority of Thailand has officially stopped promoting them (Chiang Mai’s director of TAT having nothing more to say on the subject) and many human rights groups and conscientious tour companies suggest boycotting them altogether. However, villages have continued to open up throughout Northern Thailand and even as far south as Pattaya.
No one I spoke with, from the TBC to the Kayan themselves, was quite sure how the process of moving Kayan into tourist villages throughout Thailand actually works, other than it seems to involve businessmen making offers which may or may not actually come true. This is especially interesting since it’s actually illegal to move refugees across provincial lines. But at its core, it seems like a pretty classic case of money making anything possible.
Just a few months ago, a brand new long neck village opened in Mae Wang, just an hour southwest of Chiang Mai. Owned by Thai tourism behemoth Buddy Tours, the village houses women who – according to the women themselves – were recruited from the refugee camps in Mae Hong Son.
I was able to visit the camp and speak with some of the people living there just weeks after it opened, before the 400 baht ticket kiosk was even set up. Unlike the other villages I observed, this one was rather eerily inhabited exclusively by women – presumably because men don’t wear the rings and are therefore useless to tourism. One woman told me that her husband stayed behind in Mae Hong Son, and “sometimes comes to visit.”
Everyone, even the youngest child, who appeared to be about two years old, was wearing brass rings. In addition, the village was exceptionally small, surrounded by a high fence, and offered no school for the children. There was also no monthly salary for the women – only daily rations. They told me they were afraid to leave because they had no papers.
And therein lies the difference: in border regions like Mae Hong Son, Kayan are at least allowed to move about the province. But once they leave, even if it’s via recruitment by alleged businessmen, they’re officially illegal, meaning they could be arrested for even stepping outside the confines of the constructed village. In other words, they are trapped.
One of the most established long neck villages outside of Mae Hong Son is Baan Tong Luang in Mae Rim, just half an hour from Chiang Mai. Touted as an “Eco-Agricultural Hill Tribes Village,” what makes Baan Tong Luang unique is that it accommodates not only Kayan, but also several other hill tribes, including Lahu, Hmong, Palong, Yao and Akha. The villages are separate but all enclosed in the same compound, surrounded by electric green rice paddies and distant mountain peaks. In short, it’s designed to be the perfect, one-stop tourist shop, where you can conveniently view the hyperreality of an entire region’s assortment of cultures in one easy trip. Entry costs 500 baht (not just for foreigners like in Mae Hong Son, but for Thais as well), and visitors are encouraged to take their time walking around and observing what the glossy brochure calls “the wonderful life style which not easy to see the presence day.”
So who are these visitors and what exactly are they thinking? A sampling of TripAdvisor reviews for Baan Tong Luang paints an interesting picture of tourist psychology.
“This place is set up as a tourist attraction but not your typical pushy-villagers-trying-to-sell-you-overpriced-goods, although when we first arrived, that was our initial expectation,” says one. “Fortunately, such expectation was squashed to bits as we were free to walk around the village and take endless photos.”
“I saw some long necks, but I was too afraid to take a photo least [sic] they try to charge me some outrageous amount to take it,” says another, incensed by the 500 baht entrance fee. “You can experience a tiger nearby for less!”
Kayan on the Big Screen
Just last month, Burmese filmmaker Aung Ko Latt and his New York based colleague, Hector Carosso, released a movie called Kayan Beauties, one of Burma’s first large production feature films, and certainly the first ever fictional film to focus on the Kayan.
“Kayan Beauties is not a comedy, action or family drama that usually draw Myanmar audiences,” said Carosso in an email. “So we didn’t and don’t expect it to be a blockbuster. We weren’t fully certain what the response would be, but we found the public and the media to be very positive and supportive. Especially from the Kayan that appreciated how the film brings attention to them as a community.”
While the plot is fiction, the film paints an unprecedented portrait of what life is like for Kayan still living in Burma. It also succeeds in humanising its four protagonists (who, like all of the characters in the film, were played by real Kayan people) and shattering a number of commonly-held misconceptions about them.
This landmark film is particularly significant because it emerges out of a relative void of public information coming from within the Kayan community. The areas they inhabit in Burma are mostly black zones that foreigners are not permitted to enter, and the Kayan living in Thailand’s tourist villages are often afraid to make waves due to the pressures of living as stateless people under foreign authority. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s must-read memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts, is one of the only published accounts of Kayan life from someone who actually lived it, and that came out over a decade ago, in 2002.
However, not all is quiet on the eastern front.
Mu Ree’s Story
Mu Ree, now 27, was only seven years old when she and her family fled Burma and entered Thailand 20 years ago. She remembers life in her home country as one wracked with daily farm labour and constant fear.
“The Burmese military would come and take things away from us,” she tells me, repeating a common story as we sip tea and pandan-flavoured water at the Karenni National Women’s Organisation (KNWO) headquarters in Mae Hong Son. “We were too poor to pay the tax. Then my father was recruited as a porter for the army.” (Being a porter is a veritable death sentence in Burma; it essentially means acting as a human shield in a treacherous war zone dotted with landmines.)
Mu Ree is Kayan. Growing up, she was surrounded by the traditions of the Kayan people, including the time-honoured brass coils worn by the women in her village. “People say we wear them to protect us from tigers,” she laughs, shaking her head. “Not true! It’s part of our Kayan tradition, our cultural identity as dragon people. We consider it beautiful.”
Upon arrival in Mae Hong Son, Mu Ree and her family were invited to move into a long neck village called Huay Pu Keng since her mother was already wearing the brass coils. Her parents thought it would be a better opportunity than living in the refugee camp, since they would be allowed to set up shop and sell souvenirs to tourists.
Not long after moving into Huay Pu Keng, Mu Ree put on her first brass coils, mainly in order to help her family earn more money. At this village, all women wearing rings received 1,500 baht per month.
“It was very painful at first,” she recalls. “I cried for a week but my mother said to keep them.”
For Mu Ree, the rings were a source of ambivalence. While she saw the value in preserving the cultural traditions of her tribe, she also felt trapped by the brass coils around her neck. It’s an interesting catch-22 for the Kayan; the villages seem appealing since they offer the opportunity to make money selling souvenirs (and a glimpse of Kayan culture) to tourists, but at the same time, anyone living in the villages relinquishes their rights as refugees, including the right to apply for relocation to a third country.
Back in 2008, the Kayan made international headlines when UNHCR’s attempts to relocate some of them to New Zealand were barred by the government (presumably because of the monetary value they held as tourist attractions). The resulting uproar led to the Thai government eventually providing exit permits and allowing the Kayan to resettle, but in order to be eligible they had to first move out of the villages and into the camps. Mu Ree’s brothers and younger sisters – who never wore the rings anyway –did so and successfully resettled in Australia, where they continue to live, work and study today. But Mu Ree and her parents stayed behind.
“Before about 2010, things were okay in the village,” says Mu Ree. “Lots of tourists came and bought the things we sold, which were unique. Then the same things started being sold in Chiang Mai and businessmen began to come and take women from Mae Hong Son and Burma to open up new camps in other [more tourist-accessible] parts of Thailand. Now tourists go there instead.”
Things got tougher. The money diminished. And eventually Mu Ree realised that living as a tourist attraction – she does not hesitate to use the term “human zoo” although she admits it’s a term she’s gleaned from the media – was not much of a life. So she applied to go study at Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp, where they offered a course titled “Karenni Leadership and Management,” made possible by donors from England. In order to apply for the course, Mu Ree had to take off her rings. And so, three years ago, at the age of 24, that’s what she did.
“At first it felt very painful and light,” she recalls, “But then, it felt like freedom. Now I can do whatever I want. No one controls me, not even the village leader.”
The Red Elephant in the Room
Mu Ree was accepted into the course and continued on to study for six months in Bangkok through ALTSEAN-Burma, a Southeast Asian network supporting movements toward human rights and democracy in Burma.
Today, she is in her second year of employment as joint secretary for KNWO. Here she is in constant contact with both donors and refugees, regularly entering the camps to lead meetings, workshops and support programmes, from nursery schools to salon training. She has also helped spearhead the Kayan Livelihood Project, which allows her to provide assistance to her own former village.
“When I go back, people tell me I look ugly and ask when I will put the rings back on,” she laughs. “I say, maybe someday…” (In other words, no way.)
Mu Ree takes a tough love approach when it comes to motivating her fellow Kayan. “I want young people to continue to study,” she says, adding that many of the youth in her village are lazy and lack motivation. It’s hard to blame them, given their situation, but Mu Ree says that it’s crucial for them to step up. “They can work for small NGOs like this one, and help support their families.”
Next month, Mu Ree will go back to Burma for the first time since 1995. There, she will help set up a new KNWO office in Loikaw, offering direct support to Karenni women still living in the region. However, she does not think Burma is quite ready for the en masse repatriation rumoured to be planned for as early as 2015.
Duncan McArthur from TBC confirms: “The Thai government, Burmese government and UNHCR are agreed that conditions in Kayah/Karenni State are not yet conducive to an organised voluntary return of refugees,” he says. “Some refugees are returning of their own accord, but the proportion is very small (one to two percent last year).”
There is also the question of cultural preservation, and whether there is any motivation for it beyond the desire for tourist dollars. Reports have come from both Burma and Thailand of young Kayan rejecting the rings, and as McArthur points out, “There are pretty much only economic reasons for wearing them now, so the Kayan that live in camps do not identify themselves by wearing rings.”
Indeed, Mu Ree suspects that the tradition will all but die out over the next 10 to 20 years.
But isn’t there more to a culture than its traditions of beauty? Are the rings really all that define the Kayan, or are they simply a red herring for observers and a white elephant for the Kayan themselves – an increasingly outdated beauty burden that we outsiders have fooled ourselves into believing is the most important thing, just because it’s the most obvious? Is it not possible that the Kayan could give up their rings without giving up their identity?
Right now, Mu Ree’s former village, Huay Pu Keng, is reachable only by boat. It is the most remote of the three long neck villages in Mae Hong Son. Her wish is that the Thai authorities will register it as a real Thai village, install electricity, build a bridge over the river and establish a Thai school there. In the short term, “it’s better for them if tourists come, as long as they buy things,” she says. “But I want them to be free.”
As for her own future, Mu Ree wants to continue working in human rights, and providing support to refugees. She wants to get a Thai ID. She wants to speak up and make changes, to carve out a better life for her fellow Kayan.
“My boyfriend is an electrician in Bangkok,” Mu Ree tells me, a shy smile spreading across her delicate face. “We don’t see each other very often, but he tells me he wants me to move to Bangkok with him. I say, you’ll have to come here! I have work to do.”
That is the question. And ultimately, the answer is up to you. But if you do visit, here are some ground rules collected from the Kayan themselves:
Talk to the villagers.
Some don’t speak much English, but a few words and smiles can go a long way. Not only that, but they have lived through things you probably can’t imagine. They have stories to tell. Ask them to share.
Buy some souvenirs.
The Kayan make a living by selling their wares. Other than that, they’re barely scraping by on the meager “salaries” they receive from the authorities. Most families are surviving on 2,000 baht a month, or much less. Sure you might find souvenirs cheaper elsewhere, but save your bartering for the Night Bazaar.
Ask before you photograph.
How would you like it if people were constantly walking up to you and snapping photos in your face without so much as a hello? If you want to take photos, first you should introduce yourself and ask for permission. And if you’re not going to buy anything, tipping for photos is a must.
Bring something to offer.
While not required, this is a nice gesture. Some rice, books, art supplies or toys for the children, maybe even a game you can play together.
You’re a guest. Ask before entering someone’s home. Take off your shoes if you do. Say please and thank you. Smile.
KAYAN: BEYOND THE RINGS (2018) a Marko Randelovic film
An Interview with Hector Carosso and Aung Ko Latt, Producers of ‘Kayan Beauties’