The Long Neck Karen Hilltop tribe is one of the top attractions that draws a never-ending stream of tourists to Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost city.
Some time ago, I finally got to see the tribe in their village one afternoon. Thatched huts with rows of open stalls met our eyes when we emerged into the village. Stalls filled with displays of the most creative handiwork of the women. Colorful scarves, sarong, bags and purses with beautiful intricate designs were on display. Not only that, there’s a wide selection of different kinds of fashion jewelry and souvenir items.
From a visitor’s perspective, the village looks like it’s just a regular tourist trap with all kinds of trinkets for sale to rake in money, but there’s more to the village than meets the eye.
In each stall were women and children with elongated necks, each wearing strands of heavy metal brass rings around their necks, shins and forearms. They are the main attraction in the village.
Long neck tradition
I couldn’t help but wonder how they are able to move around with those heavy rings. I watched in fascination as a Karen woman spun a piece of cloth from colorful threads in an old-fashioned, backstrap loom.
I struck a conversation with her and although she seemed aloof at first, she started to relax after I loosened my grip on my camera and started talking to her instead. I learned that she started wearing neck rings when she was five years old following tradition. She said as a woman grows older, more coils are added around her neck.
I bought a colorful scarf from her for 200 Baht and thanked her for her posing for photos.
Wandering off into another stall, I had a brief chat with a young girl. She said she studying but she comes home to the village on weekends to do her share of work. The girl said that many of the young Karen women are slowly breaking away from tradition, meaning they don’t wear neck rings anymore.
As we were talking, more tourists from buses and vans arrived. It was sad to watch the hordes of tourists swarming into the small village. Everyone was in a hurry, shepherded by tour guides . The visitors gawked and stared at the women and snapped dozens of quick photos of them. A few bought a trinket or two or not at all, and leave. It felt like I was at a human zoo.
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There are several Karen Long Neck villages in Thailand and the best way to reach them is with an organized tour. I did that but I split away from the group as soon as we arrived instead of following and listening to our tour guide.
Try to connect with them and ask them about the crafts they are making. They are not just there for display but they are people with stories to tell, and most of them speak English. They are willing to have photos with visitors, and they will even let you try wearing neck rings. The brass rings weighs from 10 up to 30 pounds.
The Karen women really don’t have long necks. The weight of the brass rings actually pushes down the collar bone and ribs, giving the illusion of the women having long necks.
The Karen hill tribe lived in the hills of Myanmar (formerly Burma) but due to political unrest, a lot them fled to Thailand as refugees.
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