Who are the people of the ‘Karen Long Neck Tribe’?
The ‘Padaung’ also known as the ‘Karen Long Neck’ women are part of a tribal group known for the gold brass rings worn on the forearms, shins and necks. The exaggerated neck rings push down the collarbones to create an illusion of an elongated neck.
Two decades ago, the civil war caused violent political unrest which forced thousands of the Karen to flee from Burma to Thailand.
This was pretty much the extent of my knowledge when my curiosity lead me to book a trip to Chiang Rai this past December. I wanted to visit these remarkable women and support them in whichever way I could.
I admit now that I saw everything through pretty rose tinted glasses. I assumed that the Karen had escaped the civil unrest and were thriving in Chiang Rai. I thought that their traditions were strongly upheld today because they are protected and revered by their community so they showcase this with pride.
But I soon learned that things weren’t so straight forward. When I arrived at one of the many Karen Villages in Chiang Rai, I found myself tangled in a web of ethical questions and various emotions.. so I’ve decided to use my platform today to help you draw your own conclusions as to whether or not you should be visiting the villages too.
What it was like visiting the Karen Long Neck Tribe
I was told that the Karen village was in a remote area which came at no surprise to me. I’ve visited tribes in South East Asia before and most of them are hidden within deep forests away from modern civilisation so I was prepared for that… but nothing prepared me to be dropped off at a carpark and to pay an entrance fee of approximately 400 Baht per person.
Already something wasn’t sitting right with me… but I came here to support the Karen, so I didn’t want to be too quick to judge and proceeded through the entrance gate.
We were given specific instructions to follow the path:
I was very surprised to see the Akha, Yao, Lahu and Kayaw Hill Tribes were also residing in the same guarded village. It was crystal clear now that weren’t visiting a primitive area, but rather a carefully curated day-trip to muse the tourists.
I pensively followed the signs towards the Akha Village and was lead to the first set of bamboo thatched huts.
Each hut had a colourful range of scarves, shalls, wooden flutes, wind chimers, bracelets and traditional dresses for sale – the sort of things you can find in a bazaar and night markets around Thailand.
Since it was about 9am in the morning, the huts were eerily quiet so we made our way to the next village.
There wasn’t anyone around the Yao, Lahu and Kayaw villages at this time either. It seemed like most of the residents were still getting ready for the morning and we really felt regrettably intrusive. We really just wanted to leave the area by this stage.
Then, towards the end of the looped path was the Karen village. By the time we arrived here there were a few members of the Karen looming scarves, applying their make-up or playing with their children.
I noticed donation boxes scattered around the village, but I had little doubt that the entrance fee and donation boxes would contribute directly to the residents.
Instead of leaving a donation, I approached one of the Karen women and purchased a scarf from her stall. I took this opportunity to speak to her since my mind was buzzing with so many questions!
I wanted to know more about her, her circumstances, if she had a lot of freedom, how she felt about the tourists… and if she was happy?
Unfortunately the communication barriers were too strong and we didn’t get much further than introductions and friendly smiles. Despite that, I really appreciated her warmth and willingness to lend me some of her time and she even let me sit outside her home for a photograph.
By now, a group of tourists had arrived to the village with a tour guide. It was nice to see that this group of Japanese tourists were extremely courteous. They asked one of the Karen women for her photograph before taking out their cameras then bowed and thanked her when she agreed.
However, with the amount of tourists that visit the area daily, it would be remiss of me to think that everyone would show the residents the same level of kindness and respect.
So… should you go?
Gosh… this situation really is a double edged sword.
After my experience, I fell into a deep wormhole of articles and documentaries about the Karen and their lives as we know it.
To put it simply, when the Karen arrived in Thailand, the country granted them a temporary stay under ‘conflict refugee’ status. Under this status, they are forced to live within their refugee village without access to a citizenship, healthcare and job opportunities… so by default, tourism has turned into their main source of income.
Based on this, it might be easy for people to say that this is an exploitative situation and we should be boycotting this ‘human zoo’ of a tourist attraction… but.. it’s not that simple..
Although the government and tourism industries are the ones that largely benefit from the tourism generated by the Karen Long Neck Villages, this allows the residents of the tribe to receive a monthly income and rations of food and supplies.
During the low season, the residents sometimes receive nothing at all which severely impacts their quality of life.
The PRI published an article over 2 years ago that said:
“It’s absolutely a human zoo,” UNHCR spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey told the BBC in 2008, amid allegations that Thai authorities were specifically preventing Kayah women from resettling to third countries because of their value as tourist attractions. “One solution is for tourists to stop going,” she added.
Ma Ja, one of the long neck women whose family came to Thailand when she was 11, hopes that people do not heed McKinsey’s call. For her, these tourists are not just the sole source of income, but a uniquely lucrative one that allows the women to earn — during peak tourist season — upward of 10 times what their husbands do.
“In the beginning, I did not understand why they have to let tourists come in and visit us,” Ma Ja says. “Later I understand the reasons, it’s because we have a different culture which people from the outside want to know about. On the plus side, by having tourists coming in, it creates jobs for us and we have income in our families from selling souvenirs to them. Selling souvenirs has become our source of income because we do not have any other recourse. If there are no tourists coming in, we would not know what to do.”
This article offered some insight into how a Karen woman feels about tourists visiting the village, something that I couldn’t grasp during my time there.
So the decision to visit the village is really not black and white at all. There are many, many grey areas. But if you do visit the tribe – just remember that it’s important to treat people how you would like to be treated. Imagine the roles were reversed.. what would you do?