Karen Long Neck Women – Hill Tribe Settlement in Chiang Mai
I visited this place of Long Neck Women out of curiosity. I was not certain if the necks are really that long or is it some kind of illusion created by the brass rings that they wear around their neck.
The Village is not very far, it takes about 35 mins. to reach there from the old city of Chiang Mai. It is near Tiger Kingdom. Created by Thai Business interest to earn tourist dollars in form of entry fees as well as the earnings from selling the merchandise made by hill tribe people, the so called village is essentially a live in gift shop. The selling of merchandise brings profit to these tribals directly.
There are total of five tribes living in harmony with each other. Women of Paduang tribe wear the brass ring on their neck.
Long Neck Women – Who are they?
These hill tribe people are not from Thailand, they are basically from Burma and are brought there only for tourist attraction. Paduang tribe whose women wear these brass rings is a subgroup of the Karen tribe. The other subgroups do not practise this custom.
Karens are accepted and supported by Thai government only for earning those few extra dollars from tourists. They are not recognised by the government, they don’t have residentship or any kind of ID. These tribals cannot move out of the village, if they do they face the risk of being caught by the police and deporting back to Myanmar. For Thai authorities they are economic migrants and not real refugees. They have very limited access to utilities, health care, education and other facilities that state provides. Really sad state of affair.
Inside the Village
A part of the village, the front part, is given the market look. There are lot of live-in shops where these long neck women selling the merchandise – trinklets, handicarfts, scarves, bags etc. You may also see few women weaving the clothes by hands, so that tourists are assured that they are actually buying the produce of that village only. Though I am sure most of the goods are brought from outside to be sold here.
The entry fees is 500 baht per person. This entry fees is not shared with the residents, though they are provided with food, heath care, children education and place to live with some basic amenities. The profit from the sales of merchandise goes directly to the tribals. The long neck women with brass rings earn an extra salary.
They are not allowed to share their plights with the visitors. I asked one of them, “Do you feel uncomfortable?”. She smiled “No, I am used to it, wearing it since I was six.”
In spite of many questioning the ethical angle of this arrangement there are hordes of tourist visiting the village every day.
These are not the individual rings accumulated one over another. It is a brass spiral coil that goes round the neck.
They start wearing these rings from the young age of 4-5 years. As they grow old more rings are gradually added.
These rings/coils are quite heavy, may be 6-8 kgs. One girl gave me a coil, which was cut in half, to put to my neck. I could imagine that this weight over a period of time will push down the collar bones giving the illusion of disembodied head hovering over a shimmering pedestal.
But is it an illusion?
The height of the ring in many cases is 10-11 inches.
Why do they wear these rings?
The theory goes that at one point of time when there were still many tigers in the hills, they use to attack the humans. The men use to keep the weapons to keep the tigers away while woman started wearing brass rings so that tigers don’t have easy time to attack their neck. Tigers are known to attack the necks of the prey. Now there are no tigers but the custom goes on. The longer the neck, the more beautiful you are. The size and material of the ring also signifies the social status and wealth.
What will happen if they remove the rings?
They wear the rings all day long and through out the year. They do remove it when they are pregnant or sick. Well, that is what one of the girl told me. I asked her if they feel pain in the neck when they remove the ring or is there any danger to their long neck without ring, she smiled and shook her head signalling No.
Long Ear Women
At this same place there is also a tribe whose women have long ears. They believe that the ears are the most sacred part of the body and hence wear big and heavy ear rings which keep on enlarging the lower part of ear. This custom is followed by married woman only.
Now a question of Ethics – Should you support such tourist attractions?
I came here to see something interesting and unique, but while going out there was a tinge of sadness. How can any one live the whole life with heavy rings around her elongated neck. Also sad that they cannot go out of the village and move around normally like Thai citizens. In absence of any kind of identity they cannot explore other employment opportunities. Very sad indeed.
Thai tourist industry calls it a ‘long neck tourism’ but the human rights watch dogs have dubbed it as ” Human Zoo “.
But, my guide threw up different perspective altogether, according to him they are better off here in the confines of the village earning their livelihood, rather than being deported back to Burma where they probably find the things much harder. Ask them if they want to go back to Burma the answer will be in negative.
So what should you do when you go there?
- Buy some handicrafts, it helps them financially as the proceeds goes directly to them.
- Talk to them, spend time with them and try to understand their culture
- Take photos with them, they are used to it, but first politely take their permission. You may, or rather should tip them after the photo op.
- Respect them, laugh with them and make them feel happy
Have you been to this place of long neck women? What is your take on this? Will appreciate if you share your experience in the comments section at the bottom.
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