A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes.

Jurgen

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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 one day, I distributed a series of pictures that i had taken twenty years earlier. In the evening, I enjoyed the Mae Hong Son "Music Night" where some of the "Long Neck Women" performed traditional Kayan 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 a series of visits, twenty years ago, I had added only one recent trip to this region – it was already 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” pictures; my assumption that these people were already flooded with images was wrong, and my small gift was received with gratitude and contentment. For this trip I printed even more pictures, a series of about hundred fifty images, dating back to 1992.


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

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After my first stopovers, twenty years ago, I only came back to Mae Hong Son once, for a short sojourn. Thus, I spend a nostalgic afternoon, rambling around the city and remembering old times. I did not, however, climb the western hill, Doi Kong Mu, and did not enjoy Phra That temple's panorama, as I had visited it during my last trip.


My first trips to this northern city were by plane, on board of the only daily flight from Chiangmai. (1992). The tarmac was often busy with joggers and it was even possible to cross it on a bike; these were fancy times without paroxysm in airport security measures.

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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.

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Twice a day, the national anthem was broadcasted through the public loudspeaker system, commanding everybody, people and vehicles, to stand still. The policemen, standing in the centre of the main crossroad, hold the salute while everything came to a respectful sill stand. Nowadays, red lights regulate the traffic and nobody stops as “Pleng Chat Thai” is played through car radios.

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Additional convenience stores, travel agencies, souvenir stalls and more tourist lodgings have only brought cosmetic changes to this low profile cityscape. Old constructions, wooden houses and Shan style architecture keep the small mountain town’s atmosphere alive.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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


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

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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.

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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.

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Each time when 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 that I had taken with me for distribution.

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

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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 also entered into her “long sleep” and several others had emigrated to America, New Zealand and Australia.


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

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Several of my photographs 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.

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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 euphoric and stimulating substances.

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

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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.

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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 to 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.

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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”.

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Kayan people follow their own Kan Khwan religion. Their practice is illustrated, in a tangible way, by a ceremonial pole "Kay Htoe Boe", a symbolic representation wearing the sun at its peak. It is erected every year during 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.

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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.

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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 each family is probably limited and the Kayan have to rely on handicraft and souvenir sales to earn some cash. During my trips to Nai Soi Kayan Tahar settlement, I have never met other tourists. This village is not visited by large crowds and business is usually quiet and limited for the inhabitants.

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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 souvenirs related to my first encounters and pictures of the gentle “Long Neck Women".


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

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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 referenced hereafter on Google maps:

Kayan Taryar (Nai Soi)
Huay Sua Tao
Huay Pu Keng (Nam Phiang Din )





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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 of water, without a bruise and only a minor scratch at the bike's drop protection. Alone, and on this slippery surface, I was unable to get my mount straight again. Luckily, a pickup loaded with Thai youngsters showed up, and I was grateful for their help to leave the river's bed.


Later in the afternoon, when I stopped at a bike shop, at 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!

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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. To see the typical bamboo houses, were most families live, one has to look behind the front row of shops.

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

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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.

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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.

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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; sold at 850 Thai Bath.


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

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The village is the largest of the three Kayan settlements. It is located along the Pai river's rim, features strong wooden buildings, and a commercial walkway, with lateral streets leading to various facilities. The settlement has a quite authentic character and the bumpy river cruise adds a sense of remoteness.

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

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In addition to the people that I had met twenty years ago, my new visits to these three villages allowed me make acquaintance with new families and to encounter wonderful folks of all ages.

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After several visits to hilltribe villages, it becomes difficult to still buy souvenirs. Acquiring local handicraft products is however, an important gesture in order to bring some cash directly to individual people, particularly in the low season when the tourist flow has drowned out.

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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.

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The Thai band.

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

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The Kayan performer.

Actually the group played at the evening's beginning, inside the restaurant, while it was still raining. All three women came from Huay Sua Tao village, 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.

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Second Kayan singer.

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Third Kayan women of the Music Night.

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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.

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

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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.

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Appendix:
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 they are 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 individuals live in the same villages, showcasing their own traditions.


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

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Kayan, are part of the Burmese Karen family. They are refugee, alien to Thailand, and, under this status, are prohibited to work. When they live in camps, they get hardly noticed and are not seen by traveling foreigners. The Kayan, with their uncommon and amazing cultural 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, is forgotten by writers publishing sensational and emotional news, mostly lacking first hand information.


Additional information and a lot of writers personal opinions are found in various books and on dedicated websites.


-------------------------------

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

www.huaypukeng.com
Kayan people (Myanmar) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Indigenous Peoples of the World — The Karen
www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/110128/thailand-tourism-burma-refugee-chiang-mai
Les peuples oubliés - Notre lutte pour la justice ne peut se mener seule !!!
À la rencontre des Long Neck Kayan Lahwi - Routard.com


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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Last edited:

Ian Bungy

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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
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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.

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ronwebb

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Jul 25, 2010
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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.
 

DavidFL

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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.
 

Jurgen

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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.
 

mbox999

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Nov 7, 2007
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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 ...
 

cdrw

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Oct 6, 2006
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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.
thanks!
 

Jurgen

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The story: “A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes”, is my second GT-Rider “Kayan Long Neck” trip report. It provides basic information and pictures of this ethnic group.

Today, in 2021, almost ten year later, and with a total time span of thirty years since my first visit to this tribe, I have collected far more pictures and increased my cultural knowledge of the gentle Kayan people. Most importantly, I have befriended many of them and I regularly visit their villages to chat and bring them photographs.

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July 1991, my first visit visit to Nai Soi Kayan people



Contributing to a better understanding of the Kayan culture is an ongoing task for me. To round up my published information, for people interest in this topic, I hereafter revive the links to my other Kayan related GT-Rider stories.


Mae Hong Son loop - twenty years later
Published on 21 December 2009

A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes
Published on 26 September 2012

The Road To Nai Soi (karen Long Neck)
Published on 10 March 2018

“poi Ton Tee” – The Kayan New Year
Published on 26 February 2019


Another of my Mae Hong Son writeup has only few Kayan pictures but several Mae Hong Son vintage photographs, some dating back to 1992

Mae Hong Son Nostalgia
Published on 7 February 2018





Some sample pictures and links to all my published GT-Rider trip reports. (Links are provided in the titles)


Mae Hong Son loop - twenty years later
Published on 21 December 2009

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Ma Paw, one of my first Kayan acquaintance, in 1991.


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Mother and child in Nai Soi, 1991




A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes
Published on 26 September 2012

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A Kayan lady with her picture taken twenty years earlier, in Nai Soi


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Mae Hong Son music night - John Nash and his friends from the Aussie Experience Band.




The Road To Nai Soi (karen Long Neck)
Published on 10 March 2018

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Nai Soi, a group photo of Kayan women and child


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Mrs Ester, a more recent picture of a Kayan mother and son, in Nai Soi village



“poi Ton Tee” – The Kayan New Year
Published on 26 February 2019

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Huay Pu Keng village: Kayan men celebrating "Poi Ton Tee"


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Huay Pu Keng village: finally, the pole takes its erected position and is consolidated in place





Mae Hong Son Nostalgia
Published on 7 February 2018


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Rak Thai, a Chinese village near Mae Hong Son dubbed Little Switzerland


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Monks sitting near to the the GT-Rider chedi on the top of Doi Kong Mu hill watching toward the Burmese mountains


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The GT-Rider chedi on the top of Doi Kong Mu hill. - Mae Hong Son