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.

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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.

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.

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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

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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?

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19 comments

  1. 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 🙁

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 🙁

  8. 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 🙂

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