Should you visit the Long Neck Karen tribe in Thailand or not?

Should you visit the Long Neck Karen tribe in Thailand or not?

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I felt trepidation about our upcoming tour to visit with the Karen Hill Tribe in a Chiang Mai Long Neck village.  We had seen the iconic photos of the Karen Long Neck Tribe women in National Geographic and other publications over the years.  After some debate we decided that wanted to see them for himself and learn of the realities that lead to this unique state of existence.

A stop at the long neck Karen village Chiang Mai is included in many local tours.  If you are visiting Chiang Mai Thailand, there is a decent chance that you will need to think about whether a Chiang Mai hill tribe tour is right for you.  The issue is complex.  Here is some background and some thing to consider when deciding how you feel about this sensitive topic.

If you enjoy my writing about our visit to the Karen Tribe Chiang Mai, check out these other great, culturally oriented posts:

Our Experience Visiting the Karen Hill Tribe Village

Before the tour, the whole thing honestly felt awkward to me.  We did not have the time in our itinerary to take a longer Chiang Rai tour to visit an actual, living hill tribe village.  The village that we would be going to would be a village created solely for tourists.  I worried that it would be like viewing exhibits in a human zoo.

As it turns out, my worries were not completely unfounded.  There was some awkwardness to the whole thing.  Normally, my internal compass would automatically categorize such a visit as “wrong”. Before we left for the trip, I told myself that I did not want to go on a tour like this, based on reading about the experiences that others had had on such tours.  I discovered during our visit that the story of the Karen women and how the came to be in this awkward and artificial environment is not a simple story of black and white, right and wrong.

How the Karen Hill Tribe Got to Thailand

The Karen Hill Tribe has come from Burma to escape the longtime conflict between the people and the government in Burma.  They are refugees in Thailand without any real legal status, so there are limited options for them to integrate into the rest of Thai society.

I was told that those without rings could get a permit to go into town and work, but those who do wear the rings around their neck are virtually held captive by them, trapped in these tourist villages because there is really nothing else that they can do.

The Realities of Wearing Those Neck Rings

The tourist trade is encouraging more girls to wear the rings, which severely limits their freedom to live their lives the way that they want to.  In the traditional beliefs of the Karen people, only girls born during a certain time of the moon phase were required to wear the rings.  Now, because we are willing to pay money to see them, more girls are electing to wear the rings.

The heavy neck rings don’t actually stretch the neck out, but the weight of them depress the collar bones and shoulder blades causing permanent physical damage.  After a point the extensive damage is permanent and cannot be repaired.  One of the Karen women explained to us that the girls are started with the rings when they are 5 or 6 years of age.

At the age of 15, they are given the choice to continue wearing or take them off.  If they continue to wear them into adulthood, they are not supposed to be able to take them off.  This is because their neck muscles won’t be strong enough to support their heads and their windpipes could collapse. We were told stories of Karen women who have taken off their rings and survived, but it was a long process of recovery.

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Should you Visit the Karen Hill Tribe in Thailand?  Pros and cons and what we learned from our experience.
Thailand Travel: Should you Visit the Karen Hill Tribe in Thailand or not?

If you are looking for a way to help the Karen tribe or to get more information about their situation, the Karen Hill Tribes Trust is a great resource to explore!

The Big Picture – Weighing the Pros and Cons of Visiting the Karen Hill Tribe

There are approximately 140,000 refugees from Burma living in Thailand as of the date of this writing.  There has been talk by the Thai government recently about sending the Burmese refugees back to Burma, but according to this article they won’t do that until it is safe for them to go back.  So, until then, these refugees are stuck in between, not having any legal status in Thailand and not able to return to their homes in Burma.

In conversation over breakfast one morning, I asked one of the owners at a resort that we were staying at if she thought that this was right.  She responded to me with another question that made me think, “Is it better for them to be here and working in a tourist village making money to take care of their families with their kids in school in Thailand, or to be back in Burma?”

The answer for me is wholeheartedly that it seems better for the Long Neck Karen Chiang Mai to be in Thailand than in Burma, even if their current living situation is far from ideal.  The political situation in Burma has not improved since the release from house arrest of political activist Aung Saan Su Kyi in 2010 (and since her subsequent election).  Indeed, things are far from rosy over there now.

When deciding whether to take a Chiang Mai Hill Tribe tour to see the unique, long neck women of the Karen Hill Tribe, there are a lot of complicated issues that need consideration.   You will have to weigh these for yourself against your own moral compass.

While it felt awkward and contrived to visit the Chiang Mai Long Neck village, I am glad that we went. It transformed these women in my mind from being a picture that I had seen in a magazine to real people who are suffering from a real conflict on the other side of the world as I am typing this right now.

UPDATE:  The political situation surrounding the Karen Long Neck Tribe and other Burmese refugees in Thailand is ongoing.  Here is a link to the page of the UN Refugee Agency with the latest news and updates.

What do you think about visiting Indigenous Tribal people?  Do you feel like it harms or benefits them?  Have you visited the Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe Villages in Thailand?

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Shanna Schultz

We are Shanna and Aaron + kiddos. We are a travel addicted family of four who love to escape at every possible opportunity. When we travel, we love to focus on creating meaningful travel experiences that help us all learn about the world together and bring us closer as a family. Shanna also writes about travel in the Midwestern part of the United States at her blog A Midwest Travel Companion

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. This is interesting. Honestly, I haven’t been because I’ve been so offended by the ads in all of the songthaews. I really do want to meet members of the Karen, Hmong, and other hill tribes, but I want to research the differences between all of the options available to me first!

  2. Interesting article, I like how you’ve presented both sides. I think you’ve missed one crucial fact though. If you read this article, http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/burmas-longneck-women-struggle-to-break-out-of-thailands-humanzoo/2008/01/11/1199988589409.html, you’ll see that going back to Burma is not the only option.

    In fact some of the refugees have been offered the ability to move to first world countries, but the local authorities seem to have stopped this because of their tourist value!

    1. Wow, I had heard that some of them were not allowed to leave, but I had no idea that it was so widespread. Thank you for presenting another viewpoint in this issue.

  3. We are going to the Golden Triangle in November 2013 on a guided tour and a visit to a Hill Tribe village is included. We are going there with an open mind and no preconceived ideas or opinions.
    We have been to the jungle tribal areas of Borneo and seen the indigenous people there with earlobes stretched to their knees with weights, have worked amongst tribal aborigines in Australia and seen some of the shocking tribal disfigurements inflicted on male and female tribal members in the name of “aboriginal tradition. I also mention the female circumcision inflicted on muslim girls in the name of Islam. All of these things have been practised for thousands of year and who are we to judge whether it is right or wrong. I know personally that I am revolted to see these things but who is right or wrong. I certainly will not pass judgement either way.
    There are so many strange (to us) customs around the world and the long neck people are another custom that we would like to witness.

    John

    1. I hope you have a great time on your trip. I just wish that there was a way for these tribal people in Thailand to make a living showcasing their culture WITHOUT having to place themselves on display like they are in a zoo. With all of the cultural tourism that is popular nowdays, you would think there would be a lucrative way for these people to have visitors come to visit them in their own villages, not in some made up village where they are on display.

  4. Hello Shana,

    I went to see the Long Necked Karen women today and feel very uneasy about it. When I was in Tanzania and Kenya I didn’t visit the Maasai because they were charging more money than I could afford and I’d had information from friends that they had been pressured into buying items when in the village.

    I think it’s fair enough, if foreigners wanted to come and view my way of life, take photos of me etc, I’d want a decent share of the profits if someone was making money out of it.

    Today’s trip was interesting but also left me feeling guilty. As with your trip, I don’t have time for a long visit into the hills, so we were taken to one of the tourist villages. i asked the guide and she said that some families move closer so that the children can go to local schools, but I’m not inclined to believe that, I think that people are just there to be visited.

    But as you say, it is a way for them to make a living. I’m interested in textiles, so talked a little about the weaving with them and asked to take photos of the work they were doing and the type of loom. I bought a scarf that I’m not sure will survive the 6 month journey home, but hopefully will supplement their income.

    I asked each lady if I could take a picture and they nodded, but there seems to be an expression of inevitability and resignation.

    I’m interested in ethnology, tribal ways of life and world music, but don’t feel that I’ve come away knowing much – I wouldn’t expect to on such a short visit. I’ll have to see if another time I can arrange to stay with a tribe for a long period of time and until then, get reading anthropological articles.

    1. Thanks for reading my blog. I agree with you that the women had a resigned look, and that it would be great to be able to return someday and arrange a more authentic experience.

  5. We visited the Karen village last year and again this year on our trip to Chiang Mai. I prefer to leave ethnocentrism aside and embrace that which is accepted here.
    We walked through the village and talked to the women and girls, asking questions about their crafts and lifestyle. Only after establishing rapport did we ask if we could takes some photos. After some photos, we bought some of their handicrafts.
    I believe it is ok to support them this way
    even it may feel a bit strange. They are very obviously proud of their heritage and were eager to share it with us. Having tourists visit and support them is about the only way they can carry on. They are just human beings who have a different circumstance than us tourists. And that is not to say mine is better than theirs.

    1. I am so happy to hear that you had a positive experience. I agree that it would make it feel less awkward to establish a rapport with someone before just jumping in and taking photos like they are a piece of art on display. Thanks for sharing about your experience and your perspective on this complicated issue.

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