Kayan shortfilm screen shot depicting a young womanA while back we were approached by filmmaker Marko Randelovic, who shared with us his film Beyond The Rings, which takes viewers on a journey to meet the Kayan women, also known as “the long necked women”. It’s a beautifully shot film which approaches its subjects with sensitivity and is narrated by one of the local Kayan women. For us here at Equality in Tourism, the film raised many questions – which we will elaborate on below – but ultimately, we felt it was a valuable contribution to the wider issues around community tourism and women’s place within it. We share this film as part of our series of International Women’s Day stories, acknowledging that it represents but one view in a complex and ongoing debate.

The Kayan people (also known as Padaung) live in northern Thailand, and many have fled from the military regime in neighbouring Myanmar. Their position within the Thai economy and the country itself is precarious and ambiguous – the Kayan have not been accepted by the UN as refugees and have been denied formal refugee status by the Thai Government. This means that while they do not have the right to work in Thailand, they are, however, allowed to remain as a tourist attraction.

There are currently about 500 of them living in three guarded villages, where women and girls are actively encouraged to display their crafts and themselves to paying tourists – while the landless men have little to do. The tourists visiting the villages are there to experience the ‘exotic’ and ‘authentic’, and in so doing inevitably raise questions about issues around control, power and free choice.
It has been estimated that about 40,000 tourists a year pay to take photos of the women, with the vast majority of their money going to Thai businessmen controlling access. The women and their families receive a very small salary and mainly earn their money from selling souvenirs.

Filmmaker Marko Randelovic set out to create a film that presents a different, more empowered, story of the women’s lives – saying, “their own voice had been ignored and [I] wanted to give them a stronger voice in the debate, [one] which would surprise many people”.

Ultimately, the film offers an engaging personal view of one woman but offers no analysis of the wider context of her experiences and those of the other women. One can well argue that the Kayan people are free to choose to share their culture and make a living from it – but it is also true that it is one of very few ways they are able to earn money. We hope the film serves as both inspiration but also a catalyst for viewers to consider their own views on the issues.

You can watch the film on Marko’s channel https://vimeo.com/249650269 and find out more about his work on his website http://markorandelovic.com/about. On this site, you can also watch behind-the-scenes footage showing how the film came to fruition: http://markorandelovic.com/behind-scenes-kayan-beyond-rings