The Long Neck people was something I’ve only vaguely heard about. They were like a strange, beautiful legend that only existed within the pages of a National Geographic magazine or from behind the TV screen of a documentary about an ancient faraway culture. Is it possible that they still exist in this modern society?
So when I learned that they have a name (Karen Long Necks) and lived in Thailand, and that their village was accessible from Chiang Mai, I jumped at the chance and signed up for a tour that included a visit. Though I really wasn’t sure what to expect.
It was only after the tour that I did a little bit of research on these people. The Karen Long Necks originally lived in the hills of Burma (now Myanmar) and fled to Thailand due to political unrest in their country. As refugees, it was hard for them to find work opportunities and assimilate into the modern society. As a result, their population is confined to small areas. Today, most of their villages are located between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle (the point where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet).
We drove through kilometers of lush green fields to get there. We arrived and parked the car, and immediately saw little grass and bamboo thatched huts with a lot of geese running around. You get the feeling that you’re miles from any modern civilization at this point, and that this is true simple, primitive living. It felt a little weird to barge into their village swinging DSLR cameras and smartphones.
We walked through a little pathway with stalls on either side selling all sorts of handicraft goods. At the entrance to the Long Neck village, our tour guide paid the entrance fees for our group. And then we stepped into a little dirt clearing with bamboo thatched huts forming an U-shape on the perimeter.
The group split up by this point and we individually made our way around the huts. Each one had a long neck girl sitting at a loom weaving scarves. Hanging all around them are colorful displays of their labor. Each little hut had the exact same scene.
It made for a pretty picture: a girl wearing golden rings, sitting at a loom among the vibrant scarves.
Later, I learned that the women of the long neck tribe wear heavy brass rings across their necks and shins. Every 5-6 years or so, the rings are removed and they get a new one with an additional ring. The rings don’t actually elongate their necks upwards per se, but rather push down on the collarbones, thus squashing the body down. After such a long time of wearing the rings, they couldn’t unwear them even if they wanted to, because their neck muscles have weakened and now need the rings for support.
I heard that many of the young Karen women are breaking away from this neck lengthening practice. I suppose as with all ancient traditions, there comes a time when assimilation can’t be avoided, and this one will fade out too within the next few generations. It’s a shame to think about a culture dying out.
Walking among them, you really get the feeling that you’re witnessing a vastly different culture, so removed from our modern world (though I did spot one girl texting on a smartphone!).
But then there were the tourists to destroy this image. Tourists shoving their digital cameras and smartphones in these girls’ faces to snap pictures, and then leaving without so much a word. Not even a thank you. And the girls playing along and patiently smiling for the pictures. I couldn’t believe that so many tourists were acting like this!
It all felt kind of wrong to me. These were just people living their normal lives! It’s not a human zoo, or a freak circus show!
But then I realized: wait a minute, I’m one of these gawking tourists too.
I voiced this concern to D, “I mean, I’d like to take pictures too, but these people aren’t a tourist attraction. It doesn’t feel right to treat them like that.”
“I have a feeling this is what they’re here for….” he said. “Did you notice that we paid an entrance fee to get in here?
He was right. We did pay. I looked around. The whole thing did kinda feel like a tourist attraction, like a staged scene for something for tourists to gawk at. Each stall sold the exact same scarves and woodwork.
There was one little girl who proudly showed off her stall. “You like? I make!” She proudly swept her arm over the rows of colorful scarves, reciting the prices.
“You made these?” I was amazed. She was so little. “How old are you? What’s your name?” we asked.
“Mary. I’m ten!”
I wasn’t sure how to react. In my world, where a 10 year old girl would be shopping at the mall or playing in the park, this little girl was expertly knitting scarves for tourists. I wondered how long she’s been making scarves, and if she’ll spend her whole life in this village.
Maybe I felt like supporting her (though I don’t know if I’m supporting child labor at this point). Maybe I felt guilty for being one of the tourists here to gawk at them. But I ended up buying one of Mary’s scarves, even though I have absolutely no need for a scarf in hot Southeast Asia. It’s a beautiful soft white scarf with purple flowers.
Afterwards, I asked if she’d join me for a picture:
Determined not to act like the other rude tourists, I politely asked each woman if I could take a picture of her. And thanked her afterwards with a lot of smiles. Enjoy these pictures of these beautiful people:
Final verdict: I’m glad I was able to see them (it’s something I never thought I would actually see), though I did feel a little bit bad about being just another gawking tourist. I still feel a little weird about taking pictures of people, but at the same time, I do hope that opening their village up to tourism is helping them lead richer lives. We went with a tour so we only had a limited time here, but it would have been nice to have more time to talk to them and get to know the women. Also, we weren’t really deep into their village, only at the marketplace where they sell their goods. So don’t expect a raw authentic visiting experience.
Practical visiting information: Obviously, the easiest way to visit is with a tour (I honestly wouldn’t know how you would get here independently because it felt so far from everywhere, but I’m sure someone more skilled at planning than us could figure out a way!). We signed up for one-day tour that included Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle, Laos market, and Karen Long Neck village. Any of the local tourist offices in Chiang Mai will offer this tour or similar, or even tours just to visit hilltribe villages.
Have you visited anything like this? What you do feel about humans on display?
This post is linked up to SundayTraveler with Pack Me To and others.