Karen Long Neck Villages In Thailand:
Location: Various village locations between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle (Best seen with a tour group).
Cost: To add a village visit onto a group tour it is usually 300-500 Baht a person. The authentic villages are typically free to enter as the locals make money selling their crafts to tourists.
Fun Scale: 9 out of 10
Visiting a one of the numerous Karen Long Neck villages in Thailand is one of the most exotic experiences on the planet. The mystery and beauty that sound the tradition of using brass rings for exaggerated jewelry is something better seen in person than in a book. We had ethical questions on if it these hill tribe villages would feel like human zoos, but thankfully we decided to visit anyway. It is a real life National Geographic Magazine to have to see to believe.
Who Are The Karen People?
The Karen are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills on the Myanmar (formerly Burma) side of the Thai border. Best recognized for their elongated necks, the Karen women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. While the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving. Overall the Long Neck Tribes live a rugged, tedious, and simple lifestyle, but the fruits of their labor are colorful and very lively.
There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest. Fleeing to Thailand was a very safe choice for many, but the ones that came are largely illegal immigrants and do not have options for gaining Thai citizenship. While things are much better for the Karen that have fled from Burma, the lack of opportunity for the Long Necks has confined the groups to small pockets separate from most of modern Thailand. On one hand it is beautiful they have been able to keep their traditions alive and on the other it is a struggle to balance the new world with the old. A visit to a Karen tribal village as a tourist isn’t without its own ethical questions (which we’ll touch on below), but in the end we are very glad we made our visit as it was an experience straight out of National Geographic Magazine.
Why Do The Karen Have Long Necks?
While it may seem that the Karen women have unusually long necks, their traditional brass rings actually smash their shoulders and rib cages down just making their necks seem longer. The brass rings, which are also around their shins and arms, are made out of one solid pieces of metal making them quite heavy. Each time a woman adds a ring to her neck she is fitted with a new neck piece that coils around and around. During our recent visit there were multiple women with over 25 rings on their necks.
Why Do The Woman Do It?
The biggest reason why the Karen women put themselves though the neck lengthening routine is simply tradition. While there are some of the women that need to stick with the tradition to make money since they are refugees, there are some of the woman that do it just to hold onto their heritage. In the early days of the Long Necks, the practice of the brass rings was started not just for beauty, but also to protect against tigers and in some cases even just because the village leader said he preferred it. Today many of the young Karen women are breaking with tradition and it is estimated that the neck lengthening practice only has a few generations of life left. When we visited the Karen many of the young women only had a couple rings if any at all.
Is It Ethical To Visit -or- A Human Zoo?
Whether you are visiting the Karen Long Necks or other Hill Tribes the is ethical part of it is bound to come up. Even we were a bit stand offish on making a visit at first as we were concerned if it would feel like a human zoo, but surprisingly it was a very pleasant experience. We bypassed the large tourist market villages and went further into the country with a group of about 10 people not knowing what to expect.
When we first arrived each woman was stationed by her own hut ferociously working on knitting looms and it initially felt a little bit like a staged atmosphere. Things changed in a hurry the second we set our cameras down and started directly interacting with the Karen women. It was amazing how quickly it transformed from feeling like we were gawking to actually being able to connect with the locals. The woman really came to life the second we broke the ice and as we later found out it was because most tourists just snap some photos, buy a couple things and leave. In short, it will only feel like a human zoo if you make it feel like one. Talk to the women and ask about the goods they are selling, because the second you are able to overcome gawker mode you’ll start to feel really happy you made the visit.
How To Visit A Karen Village:
If you are in Chiang Mai, the Baan Tong Luang Village is the easiest place to visit and features a 5 Hill Tribe exhibition village. The exhibition village isn’t as authentic as the more rural stand alone villages, but it will give you a great opportunity to learn about the different Tribes and you can get there by taxi. Three of our favorite Tribes to visit here are the Hmong (Meo), Big Earring (Akha) and the Karen Long Necks (Paduang). You’ll be able to take photos with the women and we encourage you to buy unique souvenirs from them. The location of the village can be found on this map as Stop #20.
While the basic exhibition village near Chiang Mai is accessible by taxi, you’ll need to join an organized tour to visit the other Karen Long Neck villages in Northern Thailand. Many of the large permanent villages are far off the beaten tourist track and the smaller satellite villages can move from time to time so you’ll want a local guide that can get you to the correct place. Normally a good guide will not only know where to find the Karen, but will have preferred visit times to get you in with less tourists, and will give a portion of their profits directly to the village if you are paying an admission fee. The tour guide that we used was Chiang Mai Travel Hub and they were pretty good. We recommend the private tour and don’t let them talk you out of skipping any parts of the tour for more time at another stop, instead try to see everything you can. The private tour will free up 30-60 minutes of time compared to the public group tour as you won’t be waiting on strangers and will have plenty of time to see everything.
Consider Staying Overnight:
If you really want to feel truly comfortable with visiting the Karen Long Necks, a hour of walking through the village won’t cut it and you really should consider staying overnight. The ultimate experience is to book with a company that lets you stay overnight in an authentic village instead of just stopping by the staged marketplace village.
Other Hill Tribes In Thailand:
While the main tourist draw to the Hill Tribes of Thailand are the Karen Long Necks (Paduang), there are also many other groups with their own heritages. Some of the other groups have been living in the Thailand for centuries and include the Big Earring (Akha) , Yao, Palong, Kayor, and Hmong (Meo). These other groups largely have better established villages than the Karen Long Necks do, but are still known for their own unique traditions. These traditions range from heavily belled clothing to large gauge earnings stretching out their ear lobes. The Hmong people as an example have many huge villages including a top at the top of mountains you can visit with some effort from Chiang Mai. Also near Chiang Mai there is a 5 Tribe exhibition village and shops set up near the Tiger Kingdom where you can meet traditional member of multiple tribe at once. This experience isn’t as authentic as going to a real village, however, it is a lot more easily accessible for most tourists.