Karen Long Neck Village – A Complex Encounter With Tradition
Karen long neck villages rely heavily on tourism for survival, even though the United Nations Refugee Agency refers to them as human zoos. Vanloads of curious travelers visit each day.
Villagers in Vietnam are well known for wearing heavy brass rings on their necks to elongate them as they age and add more as their bodies change. Many believe that longer necks make one more beautiful.
The Brass Rings
Have you ever watched a documentary on Discovery channel or seen images in National Geographic magazine about Thailand’s Karen Long Neck villages? They offer an exotic experience, known for their brass rings creating exaggeratedly long necks.
In Thailand during the 1980s and 90s, Kayans (Karens) escaped decades of violence and war in Burma by migrating to Thailand via Karen villages. Critics argue these villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture; others view it as exploiting stateless women and children for tourist dollars. Vanloads of visitors daily tour through these villages where women receive food allowances, toiletries supplies, profit from handicraft sales as well as an extra salary if they wear brass rings; however village owners reduce these wages if discussing their plight with visitors or using modern items.
Village life provides residents with shelter and an occasion for gathering for festivals; but life in these artificial “long neck” villages is far from satisfactory for Karen hill tribespeople who lack citizenship but remain refuges due to lack of documentation.
Karen Long Neck rings began as a way of protecting members of their tribe from tigers, after several members had been attacked and killed by these deadly predators. Therefore, leaders decided that all women must wear these brass neck rings as protection from these deadly creatures.
Heavy brass rings do more than extend women’s necks; they also crush their rib cage and shoulders over time, making breathing difficult and sometimes painful. Furthermore, these rings prevent women from raising their heads above shoulder level, restricting their ability to work outside the village or socialise with other individuals outside.
As time progresses, younger generations are gradually breaking free of tradition; however, elders refuse to abandon the brass rings that represent their heritage and ensure that future generations understand where they come from.
The Neck Lengthening
The Karen Long Neck tribe, also known as Padaung, are famed for wearing brass coils around their necks; however, their world is much more complicated than meets the eye. As refugees living in Thailand they rely heavily on tourism industry income – something many may view as unethical.
The Long Neck Karen are subgroup of Red Karen tribals who were granted refugee status by Thailand due to ethnic and political strife in Burma. As refugees they now reside throughout North Thailand where homes are scattered among mountain ranges; most work as weavers due to government restrictions preventing other forms of employment opportunities for these weavers.
At an early age, young girls began wearing brass rings as part of a sacred ritual to honour their ancestors and protect against tiger attacks in the past. Although it appears like circus trickery, these brass rings don’t actually elongate their necks but simply press down on collar bones and rib cages making their bodies appear longer.
Karen Long Neck are famously recognized for their exquisite jewelry designs, but their religion also involves sacrifice and is linked to the harvest cycle. They believe they are descendants from a union between humans and dragons. Kay Htein Bo is their annual festival celebrated between late March or early April to honor eternal gods, Creator messengers, give thanks for blessings received, seek forgiveness of past misdeeds and pray for rain.
Visits to Karen Long Neck villages are an iconic aspect of traveling in Northern Thailand, offering quick and convenient daytrips from Chiang Mai. Most tour companies include them as part of their itinerary; however, visitors must understand that their presence could constitute unethical exploitation by tourism and government industries in Thailand.
If you’re visiting Chiang Mai, chances are the Karen Long Neck Village will feature on your tour itinerary. Although its presence can be contentious, it’s essential that visitors comprehend its complexities before making their decision about whether to visit.
The Karen, commonly referred to as Kayan Lawhi or Red Karen are an indigenous people group who relocated from Burma due to conflict and violence, known for their women wearing brass rings around their necks from 5th birthday onwards; one ring is added every year until coils reach 40 inches (102 cm). According to local beliefs, longer necks make a woman more beautiful.
Though not solely aesthetic, brass rings also serve an important protective function for women from predators such as tigers. As an animist tribe that believes strongly in spirits and superstitions, even today they rely heavily on their village chief to determine auspicious dates for rituals and ceremonies.
When the Karen arrived in Thailand, they were granted refugee status without citizenship or opportunities to work outside their villages. Instead, the Thai government turned Karen villages into human zoos where tourists come pay money to take pictures with a woman with such a long neck it resembles a poppy flower.
Since then, things haven’t improved much for the Karen. They remain trapped in refugee villages with no access to healthcare or education services and tourism has become their main source of income.
Are tourists ethically justified in visiting these villages? That depends on your personal values. I believe it would be better for the Karen people to remain in Thailand than their home country where their future may still be unclear due to war and violence; however, their treatment as tourist attractions does not feel particularly ethical to me.
The Karen people are animists and believe in an unseen spiritual realm, with daily lives being highly dictated by spirits that make certain days auspicious or inauspicious for certain events and activities. Additionally, superstitions run rampant and their village chief is revered. Life in Karen villages tends to be hard, simple and rustic – with men typically employed in farming while women weave.
Brass rings are more than just an emblematic representation of Karen culture; they also serve as an attraction and source of income for tribesmen living there. Tribesmen make money through entrance fees as well as selling trinkets and handicrafts to visitors.
But most of the money goes directly into tour companies’ coffers rather than going back into villages.
Some young women are beginning to break away from this painful tradition, with estimates suggesting only a few generations remain before its complete decline. Many of the women practicing neck lengthening use weaving skills as a source of income because their refugee hill tribe status in Thailand limits access to mainstream employment opportunities.
Though many tourist villages can seem like human zoos to outsiders, we should remember that these tourist-driven ventures provide them with their only source of income – if we boycotted them we would deprive these families from providing for themselves and their families.
Before visiting Karen Long Neck Village, make sure you research a tour company that prioritizes socially responsible travel. Involve yourself with local guides who know the area well and can explain tribal languages; additionally it would be wise to stay for at least several days in the village itself in order to really immerse yourself into their culture and learn about whether its traditions are being upheld or ignored; don’t forget to put away your camera from time to time and simply observe; you’ll gain much insight from simply being there and watching how they live!