chiangmai long neck tribe young girl

Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village: A Controversial Tourist Attraction Or Not?

I contemplated for a long time whether I should write this article or not. I signed up for the Golden Triangle Day Tour from Chiang Mai, and the last tour on the itinerary is to visit the Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe village in Chiang Rai province. There have been an increasing number of articles written by travellers, advising tourists not to visit these villages. They say that these hill tribe villages are described as “human zoos” or purely set up by government authorities with tourist-friendly sounding name like “hill tribe cultural preservation centre”.

I read those articles prior to my Chiang Mai trip and at one point, I was reluctant to sign up for the tour. But curiosity got the better of me and I signed up anyway.

*****

The Karen tribe is one of the largest hill tribes in South-East Asia and they are spread throughout Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The ones living in Thailand are mainly refugees from Myanmar but they do not have full rights as Thai citizens. They earn income from working on the farms nearby… and tourism.

The Karen tribes are referred to as “Long Neck” because their womenfolk wear brass rings around their necks since they were five years old. Longer rings are added as they grow older but the rings do not elongate the necks. Instead, the weight of the rings pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage, thus giving the illusion that their necks are abnormally long. The women believe that wearing the rings around their necks make them more beautiful and attractive, as women have more slender necks than men.

chiangmai long neck tribe old woman

chiangmai long neck tribe young girl

The rings are seldom removed as coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure. The rings are typically removed only to be replaced by new or longer rings. Also, the rings are sometimes removed – if required – during a medical examination. The muscles covered by the rings, inevitably and invariably, become weak. After prolonged period of continuous wear, the rings eventually feel like an integral part of the body.

*****

Upon arrival at the village, I half expected to see a huge sign “Welcome to Long Neck Hill Tribe Village” and big tour buses. Instead, there were no tourism board-sponsored signs and no tourists, except us. It was mid-afternoon, perhaps the tour buses had already left – I don’t know – but it didn’t seem like a tourist set up.

chiangmai long neck tribe village

The village was surprisingly quiet. I saw a few Karen women weaving fabric and handicraft, and their children playing close by. Our group was led to a small hut where we met a Karen woman and our guide explained to us what, why and how the tribe is known as “Long Neck”. After that we were free to meander around the village. At some point, more tourists came to the village and I must say, people were generally respectful towards the tribe. They were naturally curious about the rings and the tribe’s way of life. They took photos and some bought handicraft items but generally, no one was obnoxious.

chiangmai long neck tribe woman weaving

While members of my tour group were playing with the village kids, my guide showed me the living quarters. Their grass-thatched homes are built on stilts with walls of bamboo and wooden planks – very basic and small. Interestingly, I saw a solar panel which was gifted by a NGO and that helps to generate electricity for them at night.

chiangmai long neck tribe village home

*****

Now that I have visited a Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe village albeit a short visit, here’s my take on this controversial attraction.

The Thai government does not give full citizen rights to the Karen people, therefore they are not able to take up employment. Some of them are working on nearby farms but the bulk of their income (however little) comes from tourism. Initially the government refused to let the Karen tribes resettle elsewhere as they were aware of their important link to tourism. But when this issue was highlighted by UNHCR, the government relaxed the policy and as a result, a small number of Karen people were resettled in New Zealand.

I disagree with the concept of resettling the Karen hill tribes out of Thailand. Despite their difficult employment and citizenship circumstances, how can one expect them to leave their land and culture, just to settle comfortably in South East Asia or worse still, in a complete foreign country like NZ?? I don’t see high success rate in assimilation there! In fact, resettling would probably isolate them even more.

If the tribes feel that there is no harm in inviting tourists to their homes, and to earn income from tourism, so what is the harm in us tourists visiting them?

Some travellers feel that tourism exploit the Karen people. They liken the experience of visiting the village to a zoo, and that the tribe is put on display for tourists to take photos of, and with them. Some tour operators have stopped bringing tourists to the village as they felt that it wasn’t an “authentic experience”.

I disagree. If more tour operators stop bringing tourists to the village, how will the hill tribes earn money? Who will buy their handicraft items? We can’t stop people from taking photos as they are merely curious.

chiangmai long neck tribe village tourists

The bottom line is, if we were to stop the world from visiting the Karen Hill Tribes, how will we ever know about them – their culture and plight? It’s very easy to say, “don’t go on these tours as it’s unethical”. Well, what alternatives are we giving to the normal tourist? Not everyone is a traveller who takes the road less travelled 🙂

But more importantly, what alternatives do we have for the Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe to earn a living?

*****

Pin it!

Karen long neck hill tribe katpegimana

Do Like And Share:
0

21 comments

  1. BTW, even on your page, there are lots of misunderstanding in the comments. Again we take the blamed without any chance to prove or explain.

    I don’t know about others but I was raised not to talk anything bad about others without prove and don’t try to bother with others people business without thoroughly know what happen because if we destroyed other’s reputation, we cannot take and give it back to them.

    Anyway I might be different from most people. But I would taught my students the same way i was taught.

  2. Hrrrr… again.

    I don’t know how many times I have to tell the foreigners. Worst, most of them won’t listen. They act as if they are “Thaier” than a Thai do.

    Sick of it but I would do it again. Frankly if you are a Westerner, I would not waste my time. They won’t listen. But you are Malaysian (from what I know). From my experience, most Asian listen to what we said more than the West.

    I would explain, listen or not is your business. I get used to it.

    First, let me tell you I’m a Thai living in Chiang Mai for alosmt 50 years. Now back to the topics

    1. Most of the long neck Karen are not Thai. One thing that many don’t know (yet dare to assume by…whatever they got. White or foreigner supremacy I guest) is that Thai is nationality and it given BY BLOOD. Not by birthplace like many countries do. Mean that if you are…say Malaysian, and you give birth to a child in Thailand, you child is Malaysian, not Thai. We give nationality by blood. That’s mean people whose parents are not Thai would not be Thai, and it’s the case of the long neck Karen (along with many other tribe, yet those Weterners don’t know, so they just said about this tribe and blame Thai gov.)

    Now if you asked what nationality this people, techinally they should be Myanmese. But they are not since their child borned outside Myanmar and from what I know according to Myanmese law they give their nationality BY BIRTHPLACE. So they have no nationality. They are not Thai which gove keep them for human zoo for tourism as many of you guys said.

    Let me add here that there are tribes along Thailand-Myanmar (at that time Burmar) since looooooong ago. They mixed with the local really well. For example, if you ever go to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, on the last steep curve to the temple, this curve was made by money from Khun Kan Chanachol, who was a Shan merchant (Or Tai Yai) coming to Thailand to do business. (In case you don’t know, the road to Doi Suthep was first made by locals, not by the gov, about 80 years ago) You can see his statue at that curve. He also gave the land which is the CM Airport at this time. When Siam kingdom in the central annexed lanna kingdom of the north and became Thailand, people like Khun Kan Chanachol and other tribes/ethic groups earned their Thai nationality. They got every right other Thai has: medical insurance, studied loan, free access to basic education, etc.

    Problem is that there are many tribes scattered around the area. For some tribes, even long-neck Karen, which got Thai nationality. they mixed with the local life like Khun Kan Chanachol I said. However there are some tribes, not just long-neck Karen but also Hmong, Akha, etc. from neighbors who came to Thailand AFTER the annexation. At first we gave their child nationality if they were borned in our land, later we don’t. If my memory serves me right the law to give nationality by blood was regulated around 1980. Why? Simply, you see how many of our neighbors. A government should give their people basic needs, ie. education, health care, etc., with low price or for free if they can,And to do that need money. This is quite true for any developing country. And Thailand is not a rich country, so we have to limit our resources to our people.

    For other tribes who are Thai, sure they can do anything Thai can. I was a university instructer for a university in the north of the country and I had students from many tribes: Akha, Muser, Mlabri, even long-neck Karen who give up their tradition neck ring wearing. Some even got scholar from the Royal courts.

    I wonder whay these people who have longer mouth than their brain won’t ask their gove to take these people, start with long-neck Karen. Trust me we would give them to you, even give them free air plane tickets to their country. We were discus it at the time the Rohingya issue was the problem for this region.

    If you asked why don’t this long-neck Karen go back to Myanmar, again it’s simple: they are not Myanmese since they don’t have their nationality. Like I said they have no nationality. Not Thai, not Myanmese. So they cannot gain anyacces and have to stay in the place where we give them to stay. (For those which longer mouth than their brain, would you give Middle east refugees free access to your countries’ welfare and free access to roam anywhere without permission or control?)

    What we can give them is basic education and some heathcare, and we have to bear it with our own meny. No support from outsider at all, yet we are blamed. That’s one reason why we would send any immigration back to where they come from in the latter years: Uihur, Lao Hmong, etc. Anyway we still got blame, but at least we don’t have to be blamed AND take care of them with our resources without any support from outsiders.

    (For those big mouth who said Thai were the refugee camp for Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian during the 70s so we should do the same. The situation is diffrent. At that time there were WAR in their countries according to UN, so UN support us money, equitment, etc. to set their camps and they would take these people to the 3rd countries. This time there is no war in their country according to the UN, so they would not support or take them to any 3rd countries. That means if we accept them to stay, we would do to god-know-how-long period of time)

    2. These long-neck Karen choose to live like that on their own. Of cause some tourist agency might benefit from what they choose, but not the Thai gov. The gov. is not so good. There are many issues to blame them, but not the one they don’t do.

    3. People who blamed that the gov. keep them for tourism is funny for me. They would act as if they know Thailand, yet they know nothing. People like this siad the gov. keep them for their own benefit. Now let me ask if they know Mlabri, Moken or Sea gypsy, Sakai, Gouy, etc.? They are equal to much more intrested than the long-neck Karen, for example Moken who wonder around the sea like Gypsy, or Mlabri and Sakai who live primitively until a last 2-3 decades, or Gouy which have specialized in handle elephants. Why don’t the gov try to keep them as “human zoo” as they were accused?

    May I say because they don’t know these people, otherwise there should be some question in their mind. That’s why I told you they have longer mouth than their brain.

    I’ve come across many Western blogs with that view and all I see is something really strange. What’s strange? They know nothing about Thailand yet they can make any conclusion on their own. And when some locals explain, they would not listen. They trust their Western fellows without evidence. How can they trust these savage locals? See this

    Sneaky kids accused of robbing tourist in Thailand during this picture
    http://nypost.com/2016/09/26/sneaky-kids-rob-tourist-in-thailand-during-this-picture/

    Thai kids accused of stealing watch are off the hook
    http://nypost.com/2016/09/30/thai-kids-accused-of-stealing-watch-are-off-the-hook/

    “My children are not pickpockets” – father of Thai ‘child thieves’ speaks out
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/09/children-not-pickpockets-father-thai-child-thieves-speaks/

    It turned out that the tourists forgot they put their watch in their bags. Yet they make no apologize. Months passed before some news paper said they “sorry” for the wrong news (and of cause it would not show on their news) At that time the name of the family were already damaged due to their actions.

    Hmong: Newspapers Apologise after Falsely Accusing Two Girls of Theft
    http://unpo.org/article/19970

    (Really wish you guys see how he and his family cried on TV. Then again, you might not feel anything. After all it’s just a misunderstanding and a stupid hill tribe family.)

    This is just one example. There are lots more of thing that they don’t understand and they concluded on their own.

    No wander why many educated locals tired and sick of these “know-it’all” backpackers.

    That’s all I would explain. That’s my business. Like I told you belive me or not is yours.

    Sorry for any typo I did.

  3. A very thought provoking post. On one hand it is so sad to see these people struggling to call a country “home” and earning their own bread. On the other it is a dilemma to protect these people from the “irresponsible ” tourists. I hope they get their due. I was deeply saddened to read the custom of the rings:(

    1. The latest news is the Karen tribe in Thailand are now returning to Myanmar because of the new government administration but…they will continue to be a tourist attraction..in Myanmar 🙁

  4. I had the same dilemma with the favelas in Rio….whether to visit or not and if it would be like a human zoo. In the end due to logistics we didn’t visit but I agree with you that it is best to visit so that they have some sort of income and as long as they are open to the idea of people visiting and photographing them. Gx

    1. It’s a catch-22 situation, I guess. The latest news I read in the papers this morning is that the tribes are returning to Myanmar now that there is a new government administration, no longer the military junta. But I wonder, if they would be in the same predicament because Myanmar is also tapping into the tourism revenue of late. Well, only time will tell what happens to them, hopefully there will be progress and improvements for them.

  5. It’s so sad to me that the women are subjectued to this strange custom. I guess every culture has/had their time when women’s bodies were subjected to tortuous methods to “beautify” their bodies (Chinese foot binding, corsets). Thanks for giving such great insights into this custom.

    1. Yeah, I guess as time goes by with education and exposure to the outside, these women or cultures will realise. However, this will mean, eroding part of their identities? It’s a catch-22 situation.

  6. So here you’ve addressed this weighty topic but it spurs another one for me. Why, regardless of culture, does it seem women relegate themselves or are relegated to the role of being an object of beauty? Why not accomplishment?

    1. Because the world is still ruled by men?? I agree with your question/thought – it’s not just the Karen women but women in many tribes around the world are sadly relegated to the role of being an object of beauty.

  7. I’ve been reading a lot about this through the lens of a traveler and it would be great if a local from Chiang Mai would shed some light on the current sentiments towards the Karen hill tribes. It was great that you were able to get information on the Thai government’s “policy” towards them which I feel is exploitative.

    1. I would be keen to know the alternatives offered to the tribes especially in terms of employment and at the same time, able to keep their culture and traditions. Until then, I guess, tourism is a way for them to earn income though admittedly it’s exploitative.

  8. It’s a catch-22 situation, if you ask me. How will the tribes survive if tourism doesn’t exist? And if tourism does prevail, the tribes might become mindless caricatures of who they really are. I’ve avoided guided tours to any settlement – especially if they involve tribes. Understanding culture can be complicated and interactions should be measured. However, I do hope the government takes the ‘right’ step, in the best interest of the people of course. Personally, I do wish the practice of wrapping coils around their necks would stop. The Karen women look ‘beautiful’ the way they are naturally born!

    1. Indeed, a catch-22 situation, and don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, depending on the perspective. I’m in full support of keeping and maintaining culture and traditions, however, am also realistic about the need for income to survive. Hence, I would be keen to know the employment alternatives provided to them. Until then, tourism might be the avenue for them to earn money, for now.

  9. Interesting post Kat, thank you for taking the time to do the write up. I am not educated enough on the subject to have a very strong opinion. I do see both sides to the story though. I heard that the women are not allowed to go around freely in the area because then tourists won’t pay to see them. If this is the case, then it’s wrong. If everyone is open to tourists visiting, then it’s okay. What is totally wrong is the way the Thai government is treating these people and your post is great in raising awareness for that. I guess there will be no change for better till that fault is corrected. These things are happening all over the world, not just the Karen hill tribe 🙁

  10. Such an informative and and thoughtful post. I remember I had seen a short documentary on this tribe and their culture on national geographic channel. I was always intrigued about them. I’m sure this experience must have been so different for you.

    1. What I saw was probably just the surface, and there might be in-depth socio-economic issues which the guide might not be inclined to say more. However, I appreciated her showing me around the living quarters while the others were busy taking photos of the long neck women 🙂

Leave a Reply