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 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.
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.
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.
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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