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Published on Mar 12, 2013
The Kayan people are a subgroup of the Red Karen (Karenni) people, an ethnic minority native to Burma. In the late 1980s and early 1990s some Kayan Lahwi tribes fled to Thailand in the face of hostility from the Burmese military regime.
They now live in three villages and one refugee camp in the Mae Hong Son region of north Thailand.
Visiting the villages is a popular tourist attraction. Some Kayan Lahwi women wear heavy brass neck coils which slowly deform their collar bones and shoulders, giving the illusion of a long neck. The original reason for the rings is unclear. Theories range from giving the women resemblance to a dragon, to giving protection from tiger bites. They may simply be a beauty adornment.
We visited the Nai Soi Kayan Tayar village where one of the women sang and played traditional music for us on a homemade string instrument.
There is plenty of controversy around the villages. As refugees in Thailand, the Kayan Lahwi people are unable to travel or work freely. Foreigners pay an entrance fee of 250 Baht (Thais go for free), but allegedly little of that money is given to the villagers, so there have been accusations of exploitation, or even running "human zoos". The villagers support themselves by selling handicrafts such as silk cloths that they weave themselves, or necklaces and bracelets that they make out of the same type of brass coil they wear on the necks.