The Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe: A Village in Thailand

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.

Long Neck Karen Tribe Pinterest

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.

Hilltop Tribe Village

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. 

Hilltop Tribe Goods

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.

Long Neck Hilltop Tribe Girl

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.

Annette Long Neck Rings

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:

Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe

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:

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.

Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe

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

28 thoughts on “The Long Neck Karen Hilltop Tribe: A Village 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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply
  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 :)

    Reply
  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.

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

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Cordially.

    Christian.

    Reply
  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!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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…

    THNAKS!

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply

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I'm Annette.

I’m a goal obsessed mid-lifer, traveler, experience collector, fear crusher, digital marketer and author with big bucket list dreams. Let's Connect!

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