In the northern end of Thailand, my travel journey led me from the peculiar White Temple of Chiang Rai to the hidden hill tribe of the Karen Long Neck people. It’s a place mostly known for the women adorning spiral brass coils that elongate their necks.
Their culture sparks varied opinions – a delicate dance between spectacle and survival. Some perceive it as a curated performance, while others see a lifeline in supporting the tribe through handmade crafts. I found that it may be a little bit of both rolled into one.
Who Are The Karen People?
The Karen are a diverse group of people with roots stretching across Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. They are known for their deep connection to nature, their vibrant textiles, and their fiercely independent spirit. The Kayan Lahwi, however, stand apart with their distinct tradition of neck elongation, a practice shrouded in mystery and cultural significance..
About the Long Neck Karen Village
Originating from Myanmar’s lush hills, the Long Neck Karen tribe, also known as Kayan Lahwi (Padaung), brings a rich heritage to Thailand. Escaping conflict, they found sanctuary in the mountains of northern Thailand, shaping the culture of various villages. Huay Pu Keng, the largest community along the Pai River, hosts around 600 Kayan residents. Their cultural threads extend across Mae Hong Son province, telling tales of resilience in hidden valleys.
What distinguishes these villages are the adorned women. With slender necks embellished by golden brass rings, they symbolize cultural identity. Beyond adornment, the women showcase artistry through intricate weaved goods, reflecting unique stories.
Why Do The Karen Have Long Necks?
The Long Neck tradition’s origins remain a bit of a mystery, with views ranging from beauty marks to symbols of wealth or spiritual connection. Some say it’s a mark of beauty, others a symbol of wealth or spiritual connection. There are even those who speculated that the brass coils, worn from the age of five, may have helped protect the women from tiger bites in the past.
Regardless of how it started, the practice involves adding brass coils, weighing 4-11 lbs (2-5 kgs), around the neck each year. There is no maximum limit, however there are instances where individuals wear up to 25 or more coils.
This gradual process displaces the collarbone and ribs, creating the illusion of an elongated neck. The cultural impact and significance add depth to this intriguing tradition, making it more than a physical transformation.
My Experience Visiting the Karen Hilltop Tribe
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.
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.
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 Myanmar or stay in the Thailand tourist industry. Many chose to stay.
Not all the women had coils around their necks, some were 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.
Is It Ethical To Visit?
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?
Tourism is definitely a double-edged sword in the Karen villages. When I visited, I felt a mix of emotions. I admired the community’s beauty and strength, but I also worried about possible exploitation. Some say tourism encourages the tradition of adding rings to young girls’ necks just for show, not respecting their customs. It made me sad, feeling like a voyeur in a cultural performance.
But, on the positive side, tourism brings life to the village. The women I met, wearing brass spirals and colorful clothes, were proud and friendly. Their shops were full of handmade scarves, and buying them directly helped their families. Ignoring the village means ignoring their economic needs, as some argue.
Ultimately, the ethicality of visiting rests with each traveler. It’s crucial to do your research, choose responsible tour operators, and be a respectful guest. Remember, your presence can be either a passive observation or an active contribution to their story.
It is a difficult decision. Not just Black & White. Definite shades of gray.
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
How To Visit A Karen Village
Due to its proximity to different hill tribes (including the Karen people,) the city of Chiang Mai makes the perfect jumping-off point for exploring these vibrant cultures.
Trusted tour operators like Pagoda View Tours and Thailand Hilltribe Holidays weave together immersive visits to Karen communities with unforgettable explorations of the region, ensuring you experience the full magic of this hidden Thailand. Here are some top tours:
- From Chiang Mai: Doi Inthanon National Park Day Trip & Hike
- From Chiang Mai: Doi Inthanon National Park Hiking Tour
- Chiang Mai: Doi Inthanon Highlights and Hiking Private Tour
Other Hill Tribes In Thailand
The Karen are not the only ones who call Thailand’s hills home. Akha, Hmong, and Lahu communities also dot the landscape, each with their own unique traditions and stories. Immersing yourself in their diverse tapestry is an enriching experience, a reminder that Thailand’s beauty goes far beyond picture-perfect beaches and bustling cities.
Also, the Baan Tong Luang Village near Chiang Mai offers an alternative. This 5-tribe exhibition village brings the diverse tapestry of hill tribes closer to you. While not as immersive as a village visit, it provides a valuable glimpse into their traditions, clothing, and crafts.
The Long Neck Karen Village and their way of life stirs up different opinions – a delicate balance between being a captivating show and a means of survival. Some see it as a planned performance, while others view it as a way to help the tribe by buying their handmade crafts. In my experience, it seems to be a bit of both, creating a unique and extraordinary cultural encounter.
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More Things to Do in Chiang Mai
- Chiang Mai Bucket List: 30 Things to Do in Thailand’s Best Northern City
- Thailand’s Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple in Chiang Rai
- Thailand Elephant Sanctuary: 5 of the Best Rescues in or Near Chiang Mai
- Wat Chedi Luang: A Thai Temple in Chiang Mai’s City Center
- Traveling by Tuk Tuk in Chiang Mai & Other Transporation
- Learn to Make Pad Thai in Chiang Mai, Thailand