Karen People, Thailand

The Village of the ‘Long Neck’ Karen Women

Ana Barreto

Ana Barreto

Hi! I'm Ana, also known as Travellight.
I'm Portuguese, live in Lisbon and I'm a travel addict!
I've been traveling since I was a teenager and I've been around the World a few times already.
This is my attempt to share with you my experiences and the knowledge I've collected after more than 20 years of non-stop traveling. Hope you like it!
You can read more about me here.
Ana Barreto

The first time that I heard of ‘Karen people’ was on a National Geographic’s TV show, many years ago.  I remember being fascinated with an image of women with long necks adorned with golden rings.  Since then, I have always been curious to learn more about this intriguing sub-culture.

So on my last visit to the northern Thailand I finally decided to stop by one of the several villages that the Thai authorities have created, to house this minority group in.

Karen People, ThailandMy experience was interesting.  Before I came to the village, I researched the subject a bit and a number of ethical questions quickly sprang up.  Many said that the villages were just a “human zoo” where refugees were exposed for the tourists’ entertainment.  Others argued that it was still worth the experience to get to know these tribes and to help in their survival, since their only source of income is from the sale of their handicrafts.

I like to draw my own conclusions so I decided that I should go and see with my own eyes what these villages were like.  Here’s what I discovered:

The Karen people are originally from Myanmar (formerly Burma).  There are actually several tribes.  Arguably, the best recognized one is the “Padaung”, also known as the “long neck” tribe, famous for their women wearing numerous brass rings around their necks.  Contrary to the popular belief – their necks do not really stretch, once the rings are added they lower their shoulders and the rib cages, giving off the appearance of a long neck.

Karen People, ThailandFrom the late 1980s to the early 1990s, some Padaung families started moving to the northern Thailand, to escape Myanmar’s political turmoil, forced labor, hunger and violence.

Initially, they stayed in some made-up refugee camps.  Later they became one of the main touristic attractions due to their colorful costumes, as well as their unique traditions.  In fact, as the custom goes – starting the age of 5, the women begin wearing the golden rings, to give their necks an elongated appearance, as well as to protect them from any possible tiger attacks.

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Sometime later, the Thai authorities have constructed some artificial villages and then transferred the Padaung and some other ethnic groups such as the Yao, the Lahu and the Hmong there.

I also learned that – unfortunately, as illegal immigrants, these people have a hard time acquiring Thai citizenship, while local authorities do not seem interested in facilitating this process.

Karen People, ThailandAs a result, a lot of people feel trapped in a kind of “limbo.”  On one hand – they can’t return to their country, Myanmar, because they will be persecuted and forced to go into labor camps there.  On the other, they cannot move freely in and out, or even within the borders of Thailand, since they have no rights, and they can’t be employed outside the small areas to which they were assigned.  In addition, many of these “villages” don’t have electricity, proper roads, health care or even schools beyond some basic education.

It’s as if they were forced to freeze in time…

The price of keeping their traditions alive seems to be too high and unjust, especially for the young women of the Padaung tribe.

As soon as we put our cameras down, and actually stopped to talk to the locals, we quickly noticed two distinct attitudes: the older ones seem more content with their luck.  The elderly ladies seemed to take genuine pride in their traditions and they liked explaining them to foreigners, in their somewhat weak English.  They were really bothered by the tourists around, and they seemed to appreciated our presence.  They realized that they depend on us since their only income comes from selling their arts and crafts.  Despite this fact, I never felt pressured to buy anything.

Karen People, ThailandOn the other hand, the younger ones show a rebellious attitude towards their situation.  They were born in Thailand so they can’t really understand why they don’t have the same rights as all the other citizens of this country.  Why can’t they just leave their “village”, and go work outside, or go study elsewhere?  They also question why are the entrance fees that the tourists pay to visit their village, are not for them but for some Thai landowners?  They feel “small” in the face of others, as one young girl blatantly told me.

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Many do not like wearing their neck rings anymore (and they actually do not wear them), plus they don’t like when people take their photo.  This “obligation” to use these rings for the entertainment of others is in fact killing their respect for this ancient tradition.

What was once a symbol of pride and beauty, today is a symbol of a kind of slavery for these young women.

So why visit these villages at all?

I believe that the experience of visiting one of these villages is what we make of it.  When we first arrived the atmosphere seemed a bit staged and the “village” looked just like a handicraft market with a ton of souvenirs.  But as soon as we put down our cameras and started interacting directly with the locals – everything has changed.  The women relaxed and showed as much interest in us as we had in them.  They smiled, laughed, and some even asked me to take a photograph with them.  I was very grateful because they are so photogenic! 😊

Most tourists just take pictures, without asking for a permission, buy something (that is, if they buy anything) and leave.  These are the ones that create a “human zoo” environment.

If you want to visit a village like this in a responsible way – show some respect for its people, ask for a permission to photograph the locals, talk to the people, and show interest in how the products that they sell are made.  You can also ask the elders about their homeland in Myanmar, as well as the youngsters about their experiences in Thailand and you will see how their attitude will instantly change.

Finally, you can also spread the word about the conditions in which these people live.  And if you really want to help and you think that buying handicrafts will just encourage the continued exploitation of these poor people, then please make a contribution to an NGO that could make an impact, like the Karen Women Organization.

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  1. You’ve explained this controversial tourism issue well. It’s important that people who choose to visit Karen tourist villages read this. It’s just what I was looking for to link to on my site to educate people about the Karen women.

  2. Hi Ana,
    I am Karen originally from Thailand and now I live in the US. I would like to show you my gratitude for the interest in my culture but I do have a couple of issue with your article. You referred to our clothings as costumes and this is a big social issue in the west. It is not a costume for anybody to take on and off whenever they feel like it. This is our lifestyle. You also mentioned that the elderly you met spoke “weak English” which is very offensive. I don’t not understand the relevancy of that comment as they are not native English speaker nor do I believe they should conform to tourists ideal of comfort by speaking English at all! One last thing is you mentioned quite a few times about the lose of traditional value in the culture because it is viewed as entertainment or as a “human zoo” (verbatim). You went there, I’m guessing pay the entrance fee, put the clothes on along with the neck brass and took a picture. This is just very hypocritical of you to suggest that unethical use of our culture while doing that exact same thing. I hope you take my comment seriously and it help provided you a different perspective. I will be sharing this article with my fellow Karen people. Thank you.

    1. Hi Klow,

      I was really sad to read your comment. I never intended, in any way or form, to offend the Karen people. I have great respect for you and your culture. About the issues you raised, please note that I myself am not a native English speaker, I’m Portuguese, my English is far from being perfect. When I wrote “costumes” I was not referring
      to something like a mask that you can put on and take off when you want, witch seams to be what you understood? In Portuguese we call “traje” to traditional clothes and the translation for that ( in google) is “costume”. Sorry if that got lost in the translation (I always write in Portuguese first)
      Also when I said the elderly had “weak English” I did not mean to offend, on the contrary, I was praising their effort and their patience to speak to me and to try to teach me something, when they really didn’t have to. When tourists come to Portugal I always try to help with their questions and explain our culture, even in languages I don’t speak very well, like French or Italian. I felt the Karen were showing the same kind of generosity with me.
      Regarding me being a hypocrite because I went to the village and took photographs (even though I always asked for permission before, did not pay a fee and in most cases was encouraged by the women themselves to take a photo) you maybe right, It’s your perspective and I have to respect it. The only thing I can do is apologize if you feel I did the exact same thing I was criticizing. I honestly only wanted to know a little more about the Karen culture, but I guess sometimes you make mistakes, even when you mean well… Thank you for taking the time to give me your perspective.

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