Visit the Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe in Thailand

Right after a visit to the peculiar White Temple of Chiang Rai, there was a quick stop to northern Thailand’s Karen Long Neck Hilltribe, who are known for boasting spiral brass coils around their necks. There are different schools of thought on this particular tribe; some believe it is equivalent to a sort of circus show where children are made to “perform” for the crowd and some think that purchasing the handmade goods at the village may actually help the people here survive. It may be a little bit of both rolled into one.

Many of the Karen tribe actually reside in Burma, though some fled to Thailand as refugees, to escape the conflict in Burma. It is said that they are not able to work at normal Thai jobs, so had to set up tourist sites for income.

My big questions before arriving were: just because the Karen came over as refugees does that mean that they did not bring some of their traditions with them? Or was their new village in Thailand all a show for the tourists? Did they simply just adapt to their new environment, learning how to capitalize on their traditions? A visit there may have the answers.

We arrived mid-afternoon and walked past a few bamboo homes on our way to the heart of the tribe.

When we got there, what we saw were rows of stalls, similar to that at a local flea market, except more commercialized. It appeared that each household had their own booth, where most were selling the same exact scarves as their neighbor. Yes. It was definitely geared towards the typical tourist.

If you are looking for an authentic tribal experience where you will be welcomed into the local homes, learning about their culture and sharing a meal, this will not be it.

But, it was still an interesting visit.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

Karen women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which is done on a backstrap loom. And, even here, you can witness them practicing their impressive craft.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

While some of the women weaved in their storefronts, others simply stood at the foot of their booth, not only using the goods as an appeal, but also the rings around their necks.

The traditional purpose of the rings was to achieve the ideal beauty, an elongated neck. Though the coils actually don’t make the neck longer, it compresses the shoulder blades, pushing them down which gives the appearance of an elongated neck.

All the ladies were most gracious about posing for photos and even helping to put a faux set of rings around my neck. And in return, I supported their stores by purchasing their goods, though I never felt obligated to do so. I just wanted to.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

Yes, some of the teenagers looked slightly bored or just “over it”. But, more seemed content, or maybe just resigned, to be there. It is said, that their only choices are to either return to the conflict of Burma or stay in the Thailand tourist industry. Many stay.

This little one flashed us the peace sign and giggled about it the entire time.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

Not all the women had coils around their necks, some where from the ‘Big Ear’ tribe and had large silver gauges in their ears instead. We did not see any children demonstrating this tradition.

I walked away from the Long Neck Karen Tribe with a mix of emotions. People discourage visiting this village because they feel the tourist industry encourages the practice of placing rings on young girls just for show instead of tradition. And that is sad. But, if we don’t visit and purchase their goods, they have no income.

It is a difficult decision. Not just Black & White. Definite shades of grey.

The solution for me was to pay a visit, purchase their goods and then seek to help with additional support through other organizations that may be able to help the refugees.

If you want to read more about the Karen Tribe, check out these informative articles:
The Other Karen Tribe
Burma’s Long Neck Women Struggle to Break Out of Thailand’s Human Zoo
The Karen People

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More About Chiang Mai

Bucket List of 18 Things to Do in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thailand’s Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple in Chiang Rai
Bathe Elephants at a Rescue in Thailand
Wat Chedi Luang: A Thai Temple in Chiang Mai’s City Center
Traveling by Tuk Tuk in Chiang Mai & Other Transporation
Thailand Elephant Sanctuary: 5 of the Best Rescues in or Near Chiang Mai
Map of Chiang Mai

29 thoughts on “Visit the Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe in Thailand”

  1. I think you did the right thing to go. As long as you’re not put at risk, then you should check these things out for yourself and not rely on the opinion of others.

  2. Thanks so much for mentioning my post about the Karen tribe at the end of yours!

    Yes, the issue of whether one should encourage these types of tourism is full of shades of gray. Obviously, the long term solution is perhaps reform of policies at the government level, but in the mean time?

    These women are stuck between a place they they fled due to conflict and another place where they aren’t quite welcome, and as such, there isn’t quite a niche for them in Thai society.

  3. I just got back from Thailand a couple day ago. I’m already “itching” to go back. While I was in Chiang Mai, I heard about the long neck Karen tribe. I felt the same way about the attraction. On one hand, it’s something that I never experienced before. On the other hand, I felt like I was going to a zoo. Like, I was there to just gawk at them, which I felt pretty uncomfortable about. In the end, I opted not to go, but my curiosity is still there.

    • It is such a tough choice. But, I am one of those people who like to see it first hand in order to formulate a strong opinon. And so many of these situations are not just black & white.
      I too have the “itch” to return to Thailand!

  4. I think it’s good that you went, as you said, so you were able to form an opinion. And based on your photos it looks like both you and some of the people who live there were having a nice time :)

  5. This is something that I have always skipped over when visiting Chiang Mai. Next year I am moving up there for good, so hopefully I’ll visit this place eventually.

  6. They have a great culture and Im glad they preserve it well. I would love to experience and visit that tribal village.

  7. I think that just by bringing awareness to the issue, you did the right thing. We can only do what we feel is right in the moment and others shouldn’t judge those decisions. I did my research and visited an elephant park that let me ride one. I felt conditions there were very humane and I fully supported the mission of the park. But other people have condemned what for me was a life-changing experience. There often isn’t just one right way and it’s good to keep an open mind.

    • I do agree that there usually isn’t just one right way and just because one company isn’t doing things appropriately doesn’t mean we can assume that they are all the same.

  8. That is definitely such a difficult decision. I always wonder about things like that. It’s sad if the tradition is kept alive simply for tourism, but then again without the tourism who knows what would happen to be people. It would be far more interesting if it was possible to visit a village outside of the tourist one. Hmm. You are right it’s not an easy decision.

  9. Usually, commentluv will allow you to link to your last post just by entering your blogs url, but it seems that maybe version isn’t working properly!
    I do believe that many people form their opinions by what they hear instead of by what they know for fact. So, I try to base my decisions around what I know for sure even when people may judge me poorly for it.

  10. what an informative post. i actually didn’t know these facts you posted about the Karen.
    in my community there are a large number of burmese Karen refugees who have resettled here in the States.

    i wish i could ask them more about their previous lives in the refugee camps (most likely fleeing persecution from the burmese) but there is a language barrier. so the best we can do is meet them where they are, and help them to adjust to life here in the States.

    i think, in terms of preserving cultural identity vs. tourism, it’s a tough balance. because the reality is that their ethnic group might be peacefully inhabiting if it were not for the oppression of nearby governments… this effect may drive them to have to rely on tourism to sustain themselves.

    i don’t know if this applies to the karen in thailand, but for example, the ethnic hawaiians. natively, the hawaiians are polynesian in origin and their lives are based upon the land and the water. but after the U.S. govt forced them to join the union, and suppressed their culture and people, we see that nearly all of hawaii’s livelihood is sourced by the tourism industry..this happened not based upon their own doing, but someone else’s doing.

    so you’re very right. there is no black and white to this area.. definitely shades of gray. donating to local NGOs that are committed to caring for refugees by providing resources/support though..that’s a great start.

  11. Hello,

    I would like to known the Latitude and Longitude of this Long Neck karen village, in the North of Chiang Mai, Thailande.

    Thanks to help me to localise this village.



  12. I’ll be travelling up to Chiang Mai in the next two months. I would really love to visit their village. However, according to the reviews i’ve read many said that the ones in Chiang Mai are more of a tourist attraction. Hence, i am still not sure if i should head to Chiang Rai for a day for this. What do you suggest? How do you travel to the village by the way? Thank you in advance!

    • The one I went to in Chiang Rai was pretty touristy, though interesting as well. I did a Chiang Rai tour that took us to the village along with the White Temple, so for me it was worth the trip for the day. I booked the tour through the hotel and a small van came to pick us up & dropped us off right at the hotel door.

  13. We are going to Chiang Mai for 5 days… how do we get to see the Karen Long Neck tribe… can I ask what tour operator you used??? I am having trouble figuring out a tour from Chiang Mai to Chain Rai to see the long neck tribe…


    • I booked this excursion through my hotel, the 3 Sis, and I don’t remember which company it was. Though it included a stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai (which was amazing).
      You should have absolutely no problem finding a tour that leaves from your hotel.

  14. It is a wonderful experience for visiting in Thailand. Because this country has a lot of nice & awesome travel places. And the people there are kind and lovely especially the women are beautiful.

  15. I totally want to visit that temple that looks like a walk through Hell.

    It’s white, and has hands jutting out of the ground, as if a garden.

    I saw a picture recently – and thought it beautiful.


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