They left their homeland decades ago, and for a time found a future in Thailand’s tourism industry.
But the pandemic has changed all that.
Now many Kayan Long Neck women have lost their jobs, their homes and their dreams.
Fleeing internal political unrest and violent clashes between the Myanmar military regime and several ethnic minority armies in the 1980s, Kayan refugees settled in northern Thailand, where they have relied on tourism for a big part of their income. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March of 2020. Travel restrictions and business closures were enforced across the kingdom.
The restrictions reduced the spread of the virus but also reduced the flow of tourists to a mere trickle. High losses in the tourism industry over the past months have left many Kayan Long Neck women jobless and even homeless.
When ethnic groups fled conflict in Myanmar in the 1980s, many settled as refugees in the border province of Mae Hong Son.
The resettlement introduced their distinctive Kayan culture to the region. Iconic images of Kayan women with their traditional dress, including big earrings, brass neck coils and knee coils, soon made it around the globe. As a result of this exposure, the refugee settlements became a big attraction for travelers to Thailand.
Several cultural attractions, geared toward both domestic and foreign tourists, were developed. Kayan women posed for photo opportunities, sold traditional handicrafts and souvenirs, and collected entrance fees to the tourist attraction. That proved to be a lucrative source of funds for the refugee communities, with the income motivating the Kayan to preserve their traditional ways.
Initially, there were only three Kayan villages open to tourists: Ban Nai Soi, Ban Huay Pu Keng, and Ban Huay Seau Tao. Later, Thai authorities allowed expansion into bigger cities like Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand to take advantage of the interest on the part of tourists. It is estimated that about 600 Kayan people currently reside in Thailand.
When they were flourishing, these tourist hotspots generated substantial revenue. That meant income for the Kayan. Some received a minimum salary of 9,000 Thai baht per month. Others, however, only received a 1,500 Thai baht stipend. And still others were only given a place to stay, their income relying solely on the selling of goods.
The settlements also provided Kayan families with access to basic health and educational facilities.
Now with the continued closure of Thailand’s borders, many tourist-based businesses have been forced to shut down. As a result, many migrant workers have become unemployed or their income has been dramatically reduced.
Ma Ngi, a 21-year-old Kayan woman in traditional dress and brass coils living in Ban Nai Soi village, agreed to talk to The Irrawaddy. She said she had lost her job at the Long Neck Tribal Village in Chiang Mai.
“Trading with tourists is the only way we know how to make a living. Nowadays, we have nothing to do and are running out of money,” she said. “We hope things will get better.”
Because of their status as Thai residents without citizenship, the Kayan ethnic group doesn’t qualify for the special assistance announced by the government during the pandemic.
Others have lost their homes with the closing of the tourist attractions.
That’s led some who couldn’t find temporary shelter to return to their former homeland in Myanmar’s Kayah State.
A return to Myanmar, however, brings still more uncertainty. Those returning to Myanmar don’t know when or if they’ll be able to return to Thailand, where they have come to feel most at home.
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