A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes.


Oct 23, 2009
Excerpt: Twenty years later, after only one recent call, I visited again the Mae Hong Son's Kayan tribes. Rambling through the three villages during the day, I distributes a series of old pictures. Finally, in the evening, I enjoyed the Mae Hong Son "Music Night" were some of the "Long Neck Wome" performed their music.

1. On the Mae Hong Son Loop
2. Nai Soi (Kayan Tayar village)
3. Huay Sua Tao
4. Nam Phiang Din (Huay Pu Keng)
5. Music night
6. Appendix: The Kayan tribe

On the Mae Hong Son Loop

The Mae Hong Son excursion is a stunning promenade, meandering through 1864 hairpin curves, shaded by lush forest with occasional windows openings on spectacular mountains and valley panoramas. It is a North Thailand's tourism jewel and a winding biker's delight.

After several calls, twenty years ago, I had indulged in only one recent visit to this region – more than two years ago - and felt the urge to revive pleasing memories.

(Link to my former trip, in November 2009: Mae Hong Son loop - twenty years later

An “International Music Night”, organized on May fourth, gave me the right incentive to drive the Mae Hong Son loop again. During my last trip, I had distributed twenty years old “Long Neck Women’s” pictures; my assumption that these people are already flooded with images was unfounded, and my small gift received with gratitude and contentment. This time, I printed even more pictures, about 150 images, dating back to 1992.

Gt-Rider website has many good reports describing Route 1095 and his fabulous twists. During this trip I made only few stops; a breakfast in Pai, a couple of “77 road stones” a poke over the verdant mountains in Pang Mapha and I had reached my destination, the “Piya Guest-house” in Mae Hong son.






After my first visits, twenty years ago, I only came back once, for a short call. Hence, I spend a nostalgic afternoon, rambling around the city and remembering old times. However, I abstained climbing the western hill, Doi Kong Mu, to enjoy Phra That temple's panorama, as I had visited it during my last trip.

My first arrivals to Mae Hong Son were by plane, with the only daily flight from Chiangmai. The tarmac was often busy with joggers and it was possible to cross it on a bike; I fancy to recall these fun sights, when airport security was still lax.





During old times, “Baiyoke Chalet ” was the only reasonable lodgings in town; this hotel remained nearly unchanged over the years, but the city has now many more tourist accommodations.


Twice a day, the national anthem was played through the public loudspeaker system and everybody stood still. The policemen, at the main crossroad, hold the salute and all cars halted respectfully. Nowadays, lights regulate the traffic and nobody stops when “Pleng Chat” is broadcasted through car radios.



Convenience stores, travel agencies, souvenir stalls and tourist lodgings added only cosmetic changes to a low profile cityscape. Old constructions, wooden houses and Shan architecture keep the small mountain town’s atmosphere alive.



Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang’s elegant reflections, mirroring their chedis in the Jong Kham lake, have always provided a fairy tale backdrop to the city. Over the years, the evening illuminations were improved, enhancing the twilight's festive mood's magic.






A walk inside the oldest local temple's compound, to admire the wooden constructions in Shan style, is rewarding. A small museum also exhibits various artifacts and traditional Burmese wooden carved dolls.






During my visit to the temple, a large Buddha image, crafted with bamboo material, was under construction. I am looking forward to admire it during my next trip, if impermanence has not yet driven it back to raw material.


Sculpted Kayan Lahwi women's images, displayed next to my late afternoon's coffee menu, reminded me about the “Long Neck Girls'” importance for the region. Opening villages to “paying tourists” and displaying “ethnological curiosities” is controversial, and even the “Tourism Organization” came under pressure to moderate its promotion stances.

This is not a place to open a discussion, but, before accepting a “prepackaged” discourse, it is advisable to collect factual information and to build an educated opinion. Behind the arguments, people are to be treated with tolerance, respect and without humiliating generalizations.

(Information and links to various perspectives are given in the “Appendix” )

Personally, I love to meet Kayan folks, and my next day was reserved to visit the three villages located around Mae Hong Son.



Nai Soi (Kayan Tayar village).

The venerable but fragile hanging structure, on the road to Nai Soi, is now dilapidated and obsolete; it has been replaced by a concrete bridge. The road is well paved till the last kilometers, where it becomes rocky dirt. The trip includes a river crossing whose water level varies with the season. Globally, the twenty kilometer trip is an easy stroll.






Kayan Tayar settlement (Nai Soi), the oldest mock-up village open to visitors, is built next to a large Karen refugee camp. Twenty years ago, it was a small unorganized dwelling, about five hundred meters away from its present position. I had already visited the new hamlet during my last trip and was aware of the relocation. From the parking, it is a short walk through an entrance arch to the new place.


Each time I meet the Kayan, I have the same fascination for their photogenic beauty; I just love to see them, even if this is selfish. One more time, my visit was unique, as the whole village rejoiced to see my old pictures.

The ability to communicate with these people is rewarding. This has changed over the years; they learned Thai – as I did – and some even speak other languages.









During my first visits, the hamlet was home to a small number of Kayan. Despite the overall increase in inhabitants, only half of the original dwellers were still present. I learned that many resettled to the more touristic Nam Piang Din and Huay Sua Tao villages. One lady had entered her final “long sleep” and several others emigrated to America, New Zealand and Australia.

After handing over pictures to families still living in Nai Soi, I kept the rest for my calls to the other places.





Several of my shots portrayed a female guitarist; she still plays the same instrument and was easy to recognize. For the others, I had to rely on advices to meet the right person.



Many hilltribe people, particularly from the older generation, are fond of a homemade candy; wrapping an areca palm nut slice inside a betel pepper vine. In addition to a strong red coloration of the mouth, chewing this delight also liberates some mildly euphorising and stimulating substances.

Every household has the necessary tools to slice the nuts and keep the collected leaves.



The Kayan's necklace is a heavy brass coil. Three spirals, two horizontal pieces and a small vertical one, compose the full set. Its weight is about ten kilograms.




Wearing the rings is a fading custom, in Burma as well as in the refugee population. A number of women have even taken this decoration away, to be able to study or emigrate to other countries. After a short acclimatization period, the coil's removal is harmless, apart from a skin discoloration.

Some young girls are still keeping up the tradition, for whatever reason, maybe cultural normality or a necessity to keep the villages alive.



Women from a related ethnic group (Kayor or Kayaw) wear a different adornment. Their ear lobes are pierced and elongated, earning them the nickname “Long Ear Women”.



Kayan people follow their own Kan Khwan religion. Their practice is depicted, in a tangible way, by the ceremonial pole Kay Htoe Boe, a symbolic representation wearing the sun at his peak. It is erected every year for a festival in March/April.

Some Karen have been Christianized by missionaries and Kayan Tayar hamlet has his own Catholic church. The followers are mostly from the Kayaw ethnic group.



Nai Soi's Kayan Tayar is no longer a unique tourist attraction, as new villages were developed and many families resettled to these places. It has, however, also progressed in size and infrastructures, with a school and a medical dispensary, in addition to the catholic church. I have even spotted some solar panels.





A 250 Thai Bath fee (for foreign visitors) is collected at the entrance and is meant to help the villagers in their daily needs. The proportion reaching down to individuals is probably limited and the Kayan have to rely on handicraft and souvenir sales to get some cash. During my visits to this Nai Soi, I have never met other tourists. This village is not visited by large crowds and business is usually quiet for the inhabitants.


Nai Soi is my favorite Kayan village in the region. It is the quietest and the most authentic, even so It has been slightly displaced over the years. For me, it is loaded with emotions and the keepsakes of my first gentle “Long Neck Women's” pictures.

On Route 3012, the way back to Mae Hong Son, a small Shan temple is worth a visit, for lovers of this architecture.



Huay Sua Tao (Huay Pu Keng)

The second village, on my itinerary, was Huay Sua Tao, a place opened in 1995. It is closer to Mae Hong Son, and connected through a well paved road, with only one small catch: some wet river passages. The GT-Rider map displays a clear warning “ Concrete weir stream crossings very slippery!”

All three Kayan (Long Neck) hamlets' precise locations are shown in a map's cut-out:
(Reproduced with The Golden Triangle Rider Ltd's kind authorization).



With caution and at a slow pace, I passed the four first crossings … when, suddenly, I took a dip at the fifth one. Wet and grumbling, I rose from ten centimeters water, without a bruise and only a minor scratch at the bike's drop protection. Alone, and on this slippery surface, It was then impossible to get my mount up again. Luckily, a pickup loaded with Thai youngsters arrived, and I was grateful for their help to leave the river.

Later in the afternoon, when I stopped at a bike shop, at the Mae Hong Son's entrance, the mechanic exclaimed: “Ah! You have been to Huay Sua Tao!” . Other bikers have probably overseen the GT-Rider's map warning!


Huay Sua Tao is part of a larger village, and the Kayan settlement is separated by a fee collecting entrance. The price is again 250 Thai Baths, an amount charged to foreigners only.

Visitors are channeled through colorful stalls where Kayan people sell handicrafts and souvenirs. Only a backstage view will display the typical bamboo houses' structures.





After showing my remaining pictures, I met one family transferred from Nai Soi and the daughter in law of other Kayan, emigrated to New Zealand. They were all ravished to get the old portraits and, finally, I was left with few shots for the last village.






At one stall, I met a musician, a girl gently playing guitar. I asked if she was performing at the Mae Hong Son's “Music Night”, in the evening, but she seemed unsure about it.




Despite its more commercial nature, it is worth to visit Huay Sua Tao, to meet its gentle people of all ages and to support them by buying handicrafts.




Nam Piang Din (Huay Pu Keng)

On the way back to Mae Hong Son, from Huay Sua Tao, a short branch out leads to Tha Pong Daeng. From this pier, long-tail pirogues navigate to Ban Nam Phiang Din, the region's third Kayan village. The boat trip and entrance fees are combined in a package; it cost me 850 Thai Bath.

Cruising the rocky Pai river, for about half an hour, is a thrilling and photogenic experience, well worth the price.





The village is a rather new set-up, the largest of the three Kayan settlements. Its position, on the Pai river's rim, strong wooden buildings, a commercial walkway with lateral streets leading to various facilities, gives this place his more authentic character: the bumpy cruise also adding a sense of remoteness.



In Nam Piang Din I found two families portrayed in my former pictures and was happy to hand out my series' last images printed for these visits. Again, it was pleasant to be able to communicate and have small talks with Kayan people.




In addition to people met twenty years ago, my visits to the three villages allowed me to come across new families and to encounter wonderful folks of all ages.





Buying handicraft and souvenirs, after repeated visits to hilltribe villages, is a challenge. It is, however, an important gesture in order to bring some cash directly to the individuals, particularly in the low season when the tourist flow has drowned out.



Mae Hong Son International Music Night

Under his aegis, the MHS Guides Association, had set-up a first “Mae Hong Son International Music Night”. George (Sunflower Restaurant) leaded the organization and GT-Rider (David and John) warmly supported the venue.


The evening started with a heavy downpour and power cuts. After the first performances under cover, the sky cleaned up, allowing the bands to play on stage.



The Thai band.


The Farang group: John Nash and his Aussie Experience Band.









The Kayan performer.
Actually they played at the evening's beginning, inside the restaurant, while it was still raining. All three women came from Huay Sua Tao, where I had met them in the afternoon

Miss Ma Play, the first performer, had brought her CDs; a nicely recorded souvenir of mysterious and little known tunes.





Second Kayan singer.



Third Kayan women of the Music Night.


After the short rain storm, just long enough to cool down the air, everybody took a place outside and the “Music Night” went on stage.




Georges and David, the happy party's promoters, already connived at a new edition in November 2012 (the date is fixed on Saturday 9th)


In the morning, Routes 108 and 1263 took me to Khun Yuam and Mae Cham for the loop's final part. It is a pleasant drive, mostly through forests. In Mae Na Chon, however, the dry season and deforestation collaborated to paint the environment in a lunar mood. Fortunately, the rainy season had begun to cleanup the region and I expect a green backdrop for my next loop; the canopy, thought, is probably gone forever.






The Karen Kayan (Long Neck Women tribe)

Hilltribe people are often labeled with derogatory names, not used and recognized by themselves. This happens to the Hmong, when called Meo and to the Kayan when the epithet “Padaung” is used; a moniker of Shan origin.

The nickname “Long Neck ” is acceptable to describe this tribe’s women ethnic peculiarity to stretch their necks. As the cervical vertebrae cannot be extended, this phenomenon is actually an optical illusion. Over the time, the heavy rings' permanent weight presses down the collarbones and the ribcage, leaving an elongated space for the adornment.

The “decoration” itself is a brass coil of about 5 mm in diameter winded in spirals. The full outfit is made of three pieces, a base, a trunk and a small side ring, for a total weight around 10 kilograms. One copper wire length is skillfully bent around the female's neck. The process begins at an early age, with a another circle added from time to time. About once a year, the coil is totally removed and replaced by a longer one. The Kayan can live without it; their muscles still support their head. Apart from a skin discoloration, women who abandoned the rings were quick to adapt to a “lighter” life.


I have never found a documented answer about the brass neck-rings' origins. The factual roots of this tradition, buried under hundred of years, are replaced by various folk tales. Linking the custom to a beauty canon, a status of differentiation, and an increase in personal value is plausible, and I can easily agree with this point of view.

A related ethnic family, the Kayaw, has their women wearing weights to elongate their ears (big-ears or long ears women), some live in the same “display” villages.

Many Kayan people are settled around Mae Hong Son. And, as a notice explains to visitors, they are refugees from Burma.


Alien to Thailand, refugee are prohibited to work. When they live in camps, they hardly get noticed from foreigners. The Kayan, however, with their uncommon and amazing features, have an asset which was developed into a tourist attraction. Over the last twenty years, their images became emblematic for North Thailand, particularly the Mae Hong Son region.

Widely promoted, the fate of the 'Long Neck Women” rose controversy. Stories about forced resettlements in mock-up villages, refusal of immigration permits to other countries, shame to be displayed in “human zoos” and other striking accounts, were published around the world.

The bitter reality of refugees, people hosted in temporary shelters at the border of a country they fled without hope of an early return, lies behind the sensational and emotional news. I wonder how many will rush home tomorrow, to friendly Burma, and abandon their customs for a more modern life.

Additional facts and information can be found in various books and on dedicated websites; a mean to build an own opinion. Personally, I never asked embarrassing questions to the gentle Kayan people, lest I would misinterpret their answers.


A lovely story, featuring Kayang people in Burma, can be found in the Swiss cartoonist's graphic novel: “Elle”


“Elle – Dix mille Lucioles”, Jonathan
Eric Cosey
Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard 200

Links to dedicated websites

Kayan people (Myanmar) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Indigenous Peoples of the World — The Karen
Picasa Web Albums - HuayPuKeng.com - HPK Public
Les peuples oubliés - Notre lutte pour la justice ne peut se mener seule !!!
À la rencontre des Long Neck Kayan Lahwi - Routard.com
Kayan are featured in a movie highlighting human trafficking aspects:
About the Film | Kayan Beauties

Links to GT-Rider website information about the first “Mae Hong Son International Music Night”:
Mae Hong Son Music Festival, May 2012.

An interesting write up from “Guidelines magazine Chiang Mai” June 2012, about the Mae Hong Son loop (with a praise of GT-Rider's map)

The second “Mae Hong Son International Music Night” will be organized Saturday, November 9th 2012


If you appreciate GT-Rider, “LIKE” the page on Facebook with links to featured stories.


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Ian Bungy

Sep 19, 2006
Top Stuff Jurgen, The Years fly past so Quickly and the Development is Amazing but I think MHS has seen remarkably little Change all things considered? In 1992 I was Working in Phuket and You can hardly recognise some of the Places now. Chiang Mai has seen a Boom over the Last 10 Years and Traffic and Construction have made a Dramatic change to everywhere We go and everywhere we look but Take a Ride to MHS and it is still very similar to when I first visited the Place. Pai on the Other Hand has seen a Massive Change to the surrounding Landscape over a mere 5 years! Those Extra kms to MHS seemed to have saved it, but what a Beautiful ride to get there! Great to See all those Old Photo's saved Jurgen, keep up the Good work.
Jul 25, 2012
Ahhh, the good old Huay Sua Tao slippery weir! This pic with myself on a Road King and a bud on an Ultra was about 8 years ago.

Great pictoral report, many thanks for posting. Terrific to see the comparison over time..... thanks.

Attached files


Jul 25, 2010
Wonderful Jurgen to come back to these people with pictures from 20 years past. I doubt that has happen to them before and it must be very special for them.
I agree with Ian. The change in this country over the past 20 years is phenomenal and represented in much of the country. Mae Hong Son on the other hand, seems to have to have 'dodged the bullet' on the face of it at least. The change just isn't all that great comparatively.
I just hope that the extra few kms to get there fend off the Pai syndrome.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Indeed wonderful stuff & history Jurgen.
Over the years Mae Hong Son is amazing for being able retain its charm & character, & so still remains a "traditional gem" of an attraction in North Thailand. Many other towns have gone the 4x12 metre concrete shophouse way, but not MHS so much.
Just getting there is probably the best part.
The long necks have always been a major tourist attraction in MHs, if not somewhat controversial, but I have always found it very enjoyable to visit them, hang out & chat about life. And it should be a pleasure again to see them playing at the 2nd MHS music night in November.

The slippery concrete weirs going to Huay Sua Tao are indeed famous & even I have come unstuck there once on the 3rd or 4th crossing. Its all pretty funny (If you & the bike are not hurt) because one second your sitting on the bike ok slowly riding through & next second your laying on your side in the water. You get up quickly & fall straight over. The surface is incredibly treacherous.


Oct 23, 2009
Thank you friends for all your commentsenriching my post. Yes, we are lucky to have such an interesting loopwith great landscapes, wonderful people and (still) remote villages,just next to Chiang Mai's door. Of course what makes the trip evenmore enticing are the GT-Rider's map invaluable information.

I hope to meeting many of you for thenext Mae Hong Son Music Night, on November 10th.


Nov 7, 2007
Thanks for sharing this very interesting story...i love the pics also the older ones from 1992 are great. Which reminds me how long some of you guys have been here already :) 1992 was an important year in my life, but i was nowhere near Thailand ...my first visit to South East Asia came only in 1995 ...


Oct 6, 2006
Thank you, Jurgen...
For the wonderful photos and historical info.
Having never ridden to the Mae Hong Son region, they've encouraged me to make a point of attending the next the next Mae Hong Son Music Night, in November.