Long-Necked Kayan Villages

These villages are Mae Hong Son’s most touted – and most controversial – tourist attraction. The ‘long-necked’ moniker originates from the habit of some Kayan women (sometimes also referred to as Padaung, a Shan term) of wearing heavy brass coils around their necks. The coils depress the collarbone and rib cage, which makes their necks look unnaturally stretched. A common myth claims that if the coils are removed, a woman’s neck will fall over and she will suffocate. In fact the women attach and remove the coils at will and there is no evidence that this practice impairs their health at all.

Nobody knows for sure how the coil custom got started. One theory is that it was meant to make the women unattractive to men from other tribes; another story says it was so tigers wouldn’t carry the women off by their throats. Most likely it is nothing more than a fashion accessory. Until relatively recently, the custom was largely dying out, but money from tourism, and undoubtedly the influence of local authorities eager to cash in on the Kayan, have reinvigorated it.

Regardless of the origin, the villages are now on every group tour’s itinerary, and have become a significant tourist draw for Mae Hong Son. The villages are often derided as human zoos, and there are certainly elements of this, but we find them more like bizarre rural markets, with the women earning much of their money by selling souvenirs and drinks. The Kayan we’ve talked to claim to be happy with their current situation, but the stateless position they share with all Burmese refugees is nothing to be envied, and these formerly independent farmers are now reliant on aid and tourists to survive.

Any of the three Kayan settlements outside Mae Hong Son can be visited independently, if you have transportation, or any travel agency in Mae Hong Son can arrange a tour. The most-touted Kayan village is Huai Seua Thao, about 7km from Mae Hong Son. More remote, but definitely not off the beaten track, is Kayan Tayar, near the Shan village of Ban Nai Soi, 35km northwest of Mae Hong Son. Another ‘long-necked’ community is based at Huay Pu Keng and is included on long-tail boat tours departing from Tha Pong Daeng. All collect an entry fee from non-Thais of 250B per person.