Thailand is rich of chances to see unbelievable wonders of nature and different appealing tourist attractions. Most of the attractions are 100% worth a visit. However it’s always good to be aware if you are supporting a good cause by visiting a certain attraction. Sometimes unintentionally you might be doing just the opposite.
One of such typical tourist attractions in Northern Thailand is a visit to Karen Long Neck Tribe. It’s a village near by border of Myanmar where the Karen tribe lives. It’s one of the most visited attractions in Thailand but the story of this tribe is quite sad. That makes it questionable, should people even visit Long Neck Tribe as a tourist attraction?
I had seen pictures of long-neck women in National Geographic magazine. From that moment I was kinda intrigued to see them. However finding out more of their story it started to feel uncomfortable to visit this place.
There are actually several such controversial places is Asia with good intentions but questionable ethics. They not only involve humans but also animals. A Chengdu Panda Base in China is quite comparable tourist attraction to this one in terms of ethicality.
My expectation at the Long Neck Village pretty much was to see repressed people or in other words – visiting a human zoo. It didn’t feel right at all. However we decided to go and see the real people, learn about their story and feelings, instead of having just picture images in our heads.
So here’s their story…
Who are the women of Long Neck Tribe?
This is a tribe that originally resides in mountains of Myanmar near by the Thailand border. Thousands of members of this tribe have fled Myanmar to live in Thailand because of the conflict in their home country.
Women of the tribe are known by wearing rings around their neck. Some women also wear these heavy rings around their forearms and shins, but that’s different from neck rings and is up to their own choice. Some women have it more like a style element.
In real life these women don’t naturally have extra long necks though. The heavy rings around their necks smash their ribcage and shoulders down over years. That gives the illusion that their necks are unusually long.
Why do they wear rings around their neck?
Some women wear rings around their necks respecting their ancestor traditions, while nowadays some are encouraged to do it because of tourists. It all actually started as a protection from tigers. Several tribe woman were killed by tigers far back in the past. So the leader of the tribe decided to have woman wear these brass rings to protect their tribe from extinction.
As per tradition the more rings a woman carries on her neck, the more beautiful she is. Later the tradition evolved so that only girls who were born on a particular time of a month were destined to wear the rings.
How many rings do Long Neck women wear?
Usually girls start to wear them from the age 5-6. They start with 5 rings around their neck and 2 extra are added year by year. There’s no fixed maximum number of rings that they can wear, but usually it can go up to 25.
Around the age of 15 girls are able to choose if they will continue to wear rings for the lifetime or will they stop now. After this age their rib cage will become too damaged and neck would be too loose without these rings to hold on it’s own.
What life is like for Long Neck Tribe in Thailand?
Now this is the question that bothered me the most when making the decision if to go and visit one of these villages. In order to find answer to this question, we did go there. We went with organised tour and a guide who would answer all our questions however I also had an intention to talk to tribe women directly.
We arrived to a village of shacks, where these women would live with their families. It was beautifully surrounded with tropical trees but still looked pretty poor. Walking past that there’s an aisle of haul stalls and a tribe women sitting in each one.
Stalls are filled with local souvenirs, self weaved scarves and jewellery. Women at the stalls dont show any joy in their faces though by seeing another tour group arriving to take pictures of them.
At that moment I felt really awkward and didn’t want to be there to seem like another tourist enjoying the zoo of people. But keeping in mind the goal to find out more, we stayed and asked questions.
Our tour guide, a worker of Thailand tourism business, didn’t really like the first question I asked her, but had the answer already prepared. I asked if the long neck women are happy living here.
Being aware of the fact that these people are refugees in Thailand and are allowed to stay in the country only if they would serve as tourist entertainers, made me very keen to hear what will the guide tell us.
The guide explained that these people have no chance for a life in their home country Myanmar and here at least they can live in peace. Even though they are poor, tourists bring them joy by coming to visit them and buying their crafts. That way the tribe makes money and can afford clean water for their families.
What options do they have in Thailand?
Families of the Karen Tribe lives all together in dedicated villages. These people are living with a refugee status with basically no rights apart from functioning as a tourist attraction.
Nowadays many girls of the tribe are wearing rings not because of their ancestor traditions but simply to entertain tourists and help their families make more money.
Men of the families are allowed to work in agriculture in their own villages. Children are technically allowed to go to school. But in order to do that they must learn Thai language first. This makes it quite impossible for them to actually go to school.
Educated people of the tribe are allowed to work outside the village. This only refers to men and women without neck rings though. However they are not allowed to go away from their village further than approximately 50 km radius. That limits the work options quite a lot.
It appears that these people do have some rights on the paper, but sadly they are pretty much non-existent, if considering the restrictions that also applies to their status.
Is it ethical to visit a Long Neck Village in Thailand?
After talking to people in the village and learning more about their situation, I understand that there’s no right or wrong in terms of should you visit this tourist attraction or not. From one side it’s probably true that this kind of life in Thailand is better for these families, then it would be in their home country. On the other side it’s never acceptable for people to have no free choice and basically being slaves of Thai tourism industry.
Overall I’m glad that we went to visit the Long Neck Karen tribe and found out more about their story. It added real faces and feelings to the photo images I previously had in my mind. I definitely don’t feel better knowing their story now, but I think it’s important to be aware of such situations happening to people all over the world. By knowing it, we can trying to find ways how to help and support them.