Women of the Kayan tribe are renowned for wearing brass coil rings around their necks. Given the hefty weight of these coils, their collar bones and upper ribs are compressed down vertically, thereby giving them the illusory appearance of a “long neck.”
In Thailand, travelers can spend a day with the Kayan at Huay Pu Keng, a remote village that’s nestled in the mountainous and densely forested region of Mae Hong Son.
Shortly after being awoken by the sounds of a crow-happy rooster and a gang of noisy chickens, we grabbed our daypack and sling, headed out the door and began our drive through a series of mist covered mountains.
The village of Huay Pu Keng was roughly a 30 minute drive from the sleepy town of Mae Hong Son. While the main road to the village was well-maintained, the last kilometer was a bumpy dirt road with a dead-end at the Pai River.
To cross the river to the village, we had to take a longtail boat which cost us 20 baht p/p. Upon crossing, we weren’t asked to pay an entrance fee, unlike other (inauthentic) Kayan villages in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
We walked the empty paths only to become more and more fascinated. The Kayan women looked amazing and elegant. Their long necks adorned with brass coils gave them a unique aesthetic that challenged our understanding of global beauty standards.
And when we met the oldest Kayan woman of the village, she warmly invited us to sit with her on a creaky bamboo porch. She welcomed us with zero expectation and didn’t push us to buy anything – she only wanted to have a genuine conversation with a couple of strangers.
From our conversation, we learned that the Kayan live a rugged, tedious, and simplistic lifestyle, although the fruits of their labour are incredibly vibrant.
They maintain a high level of positivity and peace with the cards they’ve been dealt in life. As war refugees from Myanmar, they chose to escape the chaos of ethnic violence, which plagued their homeland for many, many years. And with a fresh start in Thailand, they’ve worked diligently to build a better life for their children and future generations.
While the Kayan men are primarily field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of weaving and wood carving. On most days, they make a variety of handmade products that are available for sale in stalls, typically on the exterior of their homes.
The most expensive items for sale (which sell for 100 – 500 baht), are intricately patterned textiles. These beautiful scarves and garments are handwoven by the women of the village and serve as their primary source of income.
As for the origins of wearing brass coils, there’s a mystery that shrouds the inherent truth. While there are multiple foreign explanations, the Kayan firmly believe this: they are the descendants of dragons and in their desire to resemble their “ancestors,” the women wear coils to imitate the aesthetic of a dragon’s neck.
All Kayan women are eligible to wear the brass coils and this process begins at a very young age. The first brass coil a young girl receives is at the age of 5, with a subsequent coil being added every year based on health. A maximum of 30 coils are allowed to be worn, which means this tradition is a lifelong endeavor that requires an extreme level of discipline and stress tolerance.
After walking around the village for hours and spending quality time with several families, we grew hungry as the enticing aroma of fried spring rolls (poh piah tod) filled our noses. As it turns out, one of the local “chefs” was cooking a Kayan rendition of the infamous Vietnamese dish, goi cuon.
The spring rolls were being sold for 10 baht a piece and yes… they were damn delicious!
With our bellies full and our time with the Kayan falling short, we had brief moment to reflect on our experiences with these amazing people. And as we reflected on how the day unfolded, we grew even more impressed with the level of mental fortitude that the long neck women possess – it’s truly an incredible feat.
Fundamentally, the beauty that underpins the discipline of the long neck tradition is something that we all can learn from and apply to our daily practices. If we learned to embrace discomfort and remain wholeheartedly positive, just as the Kayan do, imagine the well-being and productivity impact it would have on our lives.
#1 While there are other Kayan villages in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, we consider Huay Pu Keng in Mae Hong Son to be the only one that’s authentic and friendly. There’s no “village fee,” zero pressure to purchase any items, and there are additional activities available (such as short hikes and river tours).
#2 Go with an inexpensive and independent guide that can translate for you. In order to get the best experience possible, you’ll need to interact with the villagers. Whatever you do, don’t be a drive-by tourist that quickly comes and goes. The Kayan are wonderful people that deserve your time and attention,
#3 If you want to take a picture of someone, purchase a hand-made item first and then introduce yourself. Since the women are friendly and patient, you’ll have no issues getting a quality shot this way. And if you don’t want to buy anything, you’ll need to give them a tip 20-100 baht, depending on how many photographs you take.
#4 For those keen on learning more about Kayan culture, opt to spend a night with a family in the village. It’ll maximize your exposure to their way of life and give you a more grounded perspective on the pursuit of happiness.