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The Real Life Under 25 Neck Rings: Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

 

Visiting the Long Neck Tribe in Chiang Mai area or anywhere in Thailand is one of the most popular attraction. However, it's very important to know the story behind Karen Tribe "attraction" and think about if it's really ethical to visit. Find out more right here! #Thailand #LongNeckTribe #TravelThailand is a home to many unique tourist attractions that are well worth a visit. However, it’s always good to be aware of the fact if visiting a certain attraction supports a good cause, like in the case of visiting the Long Neck Tribe villages.

Sometimes unintentionally it can be just the opposite.

One of such controversial attractions is the Kayan Long Neck Tribe village in Northern Thailand. Have you thought about how ethical it actually is to go there to admire these long neck people?


It’s a village nearby border of Myanmar where the Karen tribe lives. These long neck women (also known as giraffe woman) are one of the most visited attractions in Thailand.

However, the story of these Karen hill tribe people is quite sad. That makes it questionable, should people even visit the Long Neck Tribe as a tourist attraction?

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

I had seen pictures of longneck women in National Geographic magazine. From that moment I was kinda intrigued to see them. However, finding out more about their story it started to feel uncomfortable to visit this place.

My expectation at the Karen 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. But we decided to go and see the real people, learn about their story and feelings, instead of having just picture images in our heads.

The Story of the Kayan Long Neck Tribe

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

The origins of the Kayan Long Neck Tribe, which is a sub-group of the Red Karen people, are in Myanmar, where thousands of these people live in the mountains just across the Thai border. Many of them have chosen to flee to Thailand in search of a safer life, as there’s been a brutal military conflict in their home country for years. 

The Kayan Long Neck tribes live in Northern Thailand as refugees. They also serve as one of the most profitable tourist attractions in the Thai tourism industry. Unfortunately, their lives in Thailand are difficult and it’s quite visible to any tourist, who visits the village and dares to think, what it must be like to live there.

There is a lot of conflicting information about the lives of the Karen people of the Kayan tribe in Thailand. Thai tour guides are willing to explain to curious tourists about the living arrangements of the tribe in Thailand, making them seem quite acceptable, whereas the Karen women are sharing a whole different story.

Also with United Nations Refugee Agency encouraging tourists to boycott the attraction, which they refer to as a “human zoo”, makes really rethink the ethics of visiting this place.

Who are the women of Long Neck Tribe?

Karen Long Neck Tribe ThailandThe Karen long neck tribe is unique by the fact that their women are wearing heavy neck rings around their necks for most of their lives. 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 longneck women have it more like a style element.

In real life, these women don’t naturally have extra long necks though. The heavy brass rings are a neck strecher, smashing their rib cage and shoulders down over the years. That gives the illusion that their necks are unusually long.

Why do the long neck women wear neck rings?

Some women wear the brass neck rings around their necks respecting their ancestor traditions, while nowadays some are encouraged to do it because of tourists.

The tradition or neck rigs actually started as a protection from tigers. Several Karen tribe woman were killed by tigers far back in the past. So the leader of the tribe decided to have woman wear these brass neck rings to protect their tribe from extinction.

As per tradition, the more neck 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 neck rings.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

How many rings do Long Neck Kayan women wear?

Usually, girls start to wear long neck rings from the age of 5 – 6. They start with 5 rings around their neck and 2 extra neck streching rings are added year by year. There’s no fixed maximum number of neck rings that they can wear, but it can go up to 25.

Around the age of 15 girls are able to choose if they will continue the neck elongation by 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 to hold on its own with neck rings removed.

Wearing the rings around their necks is every Kayan women’s choice, which they have to make until their twenties. In the past women wore the rings to honor their ancestor’s traditions.

Nowadays, for the tribal women living in Thailand, the choice of wearing rings is made mostly based on the need to be able to make money from entertaining tourists.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

What’s the life of the Long Neck Tribe in Thailand like?

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 the answer to this question, we did go there. We went with an organized tour and a guide who would answer all our questions, however, I also had an intention to talk to tribe women directly.

When tourists visit a Kayan Long Neck Tribe village, they see the women with neck rings sitting in small shacks, selling self-made bracelets, scarfs and other souvenirs.

Thai tour guides share with visitors, that Kayan families live here quite happily, as they are away from the dangerous conflict in their homeland and can welcome tourists every day to sell them their craft and make money.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

We arrived at 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 jewelry. Women at the stalls don’t 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 Kayan 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 Karen hill tribes make money and can afford clean water for their families.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

What options do Kayan people have in Thailand?

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

Families of the Karen Hill 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 around necks, not because of their ancestor traditions but simply to entertain tourists and help their families make more money.

As per Thai guide, Kayan men are working in agriculture within their own villages. Children are technically allowed to go to school. But in order to do that they must learn the 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.

There area very few people of the Kayan Long neck tribe who have managed to get away from these villages and have spoken publicly about their lives there. Kayan women, who have actually lived in the village, but now lives in Australia, have shared, how they are restricted to making money any other way than from tourists in their village.

As refugees, they are restricted to work or leave the confines of the village at all or to farm the land to grow their own rice. The education for children is only available by uneducated people within the tribe.

Their houses are made of wood and leaves, without electricity or proper sanitation and without ways to improve. Thailand falsely portrays Karen tribe to tourists as very primitive people, not wanting any improvements in their villages, any sanitary measures, cleanliness or anything modern at all.

Is it ethical to visit a Karen Long Neck Village in Thailand?

So how to decide if visiting a tribal village in Thailand is ethical? As per their own words, the Kayan people seem to be in a dead end situation, where their only way of making living in Thailand is to comply with Thai rules. The rules, that might be violating their basic human rights.

As the people of the Karen Long Neck tribe have a tough life in Thailand, they still admit that they are doing their best to make a living, even though it might look like a “human zoo”. They can’t return to their homeland until the fighting in Myanmar stops. So they are living in hopes that this all is just temporary.

The aspects surrounding the lives of Karen Long Neck tribe people in Thailand are very controversial, so it could be difficult to pick the right or wrong attitude towards visiting this Thai attraction. These people might be mistreated, but they might suffer even more if the only stream of their income is cut at all.

Karen Long Neck Tribe Thailand

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. However, I do think it’s important to be aware of such situations happening to people all over the world. By knowing it, we can try to find ways how to help and support them.

Read about other blogger’s experiences of visiting the Long Neck Tribe in Thailand here.

Also, did you know that there are actually several such controversial places in Asia with seemingly good intentions but questionable ethics? They not only involve humans but also animals. A Chengdu Panda Base in China is quite a comparable tourist attraction to this one in terms of ethicality.

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32 comments

  1. I am a woman of mostly Irish decent. I have worn my claddagh for decades. Is it appropriate for me to buy a claddagh for a man of non Irish decent, especially if we decide to commit or formally marry?

  2. Hearing about long neck tribe for the first time. Thanks for sharing

  3. I do not support this, too. But I understand that tribes also choose to continue doing this to make a living. The sad and ugly truth.

  4. I have been to this village and I must say I didn’t feel happy at all once I got to know about their lives. I asked the similar questions that you had and the answers were there, but it’s kind of tough to decide whether this needs to be entertained or not. The only comforting part is that women today have the choice to continue the tradition or not. If the government can give better accessibility and privileges I think it would help them a lot!

  5. Thankyou for sharing their story – I have also seen pictures of long-neck women in National Geographic magazines, though had no idea that many of the tribe had fled from Myanmar and are now living in Thailand as refugees. It’s a tough moral balance, because this is obviously one of the only legitimate ways they have for making money, as much as it is enslaving them by the tourism trade. You take away the tourism and then they may be forced into worse poverty. I at least feel more comfortable knowing that girls are given the choice to continue with it or not and the changes to their body are not forced if they genuinely don’t want them to.

  6. I completely understand how you felt when you visited this place. I would be hesitant too. They are not tourist attractions. They need access to proper education so they can seek better employment opportunities. This is disheartening. Women in this tribe should stop wearing the rings. The old lady looks sad. She is just doing this for survival. I hope that things will get better for them.

  7. Thank you for opening my eyes to the plight of the Long Neck women. I too had seen their photos in National Geographic. I honestly did not realize there were any women still doing this. It is sad that there is no real cultural reason for them to wear the rings any more, except financial.

  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I’ve seen pictures of these women in magazines, but didn’t know much of the history behind it. I can’t imagine 25 rings, though… They must really hurt. 🙁

  9. I have seen this on National Geography. I always find it quite shocking to hear about these kinds of trends. I don’t support all these. But, I really enjoyed learning the facts.

  10. This is very interesting. I have never heard of these tribes or the tourism visits. I love your article and how you really looked at both sides, its very interesting to see it from the Tribe’s people’s point of view. I think it is great that you wrote the story so people would be aware. Thank You for sharing!

  11. Like you, I was intrigued by pictures of these women in National Geographic when I was a child. However, as an adult, I see these women as victims of a physically torturous “tradition.” The fact that these women and their families are only refugees in a foreign land where they are treated as tourist attractions cements the pathos of their story.

  12. I had read about it in sixth grade, the long neck tribe is all about beautifying with age through the rings in the neck, longer the neck, elegant is the woman. Though, we had a debate on should these be allowed as they were further worn only for the tourists who could see them, as you told in the article.

  13. Such a great post reflecting the issues on women. Wearing a long neck rings for fashion is okay but if imposed then it is a slavery. Just for tourist attraction it is really shame. Why would tourists see such pain

  14. Very interesting story that I hadn’t heard of before. Being a conscious traveler is something that I have always tried to do, but mostly from an environmental or animal stand point. I haven’t really thought about the human impact of my travels before, but certainly will be a consideration going forward.

  15. Thanks for sharing such a detailed account of the long-neck women. I’ve seen pictures in National Geographic for years, but didn’t understand the history. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but can appreciate their desire to do this for cultural reasons. That’s the fun part of traveling… exploring and educating yourself on the how’s and why’s of other cultures.

  16. I did not know all of this information about the long neck tribes. We visited a Karen village near Chiang Rai but did not meet the tribes people. I heard that often it was a show for tourists

  17. This is so amazing, but horrible that many are encouraged to do it for the tourists. 25 is A LOT, that’s nuts and really weird. It’s sad but somehow good to hear for some of them it gives a chance to make a penny.

  18. Great post! The story is very interesting and indeed intrigue. For me seeing, learning and meeting this tribe is so much more worth a visit than every tourist attraction, such as temples and etc.

  19. “Attractions” like these are becoming extremely difficult to judge. On the one hand it being a tradition adds tome value to the rings around the neck, but then the questions arises, what if a woman doesn’t want to do it and break free from tradition. Adding the pressure of being a refugee and then using this as a way to promote layers up more debatable questions. It’s quite a thought piece and one we should always keep in the back of our minds while travelling.

  20. Great read! I also chose not to visit while I was in Thailand. It just didn’t seem right to visit these people in their homes for the purpose of seeing them. It’s a true dilemma. They are safer in Thailand but girls should absolutely not feel they have to wear the rings to entertain tourists and make money for their families. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and bringing to light stories like this.

  21. Thanks for sharing your time with the long neck neck women. I totally understand the conflict of deciding to go visit or not. But I am glad you did to share what you learnt first hand and their story. If the tiger bite theory is the true reason (I don’t believe it is), why are there no long neck men?

  22. I always find it quite shocking to hear about these kinds of stories. Good for you not wanting to treat them as a human zoo! I can’t understand how anyone would want to facilitate an industry that so obviously hurts other people…

  23. I skipped this place for the reasons you stated but I am glad you went and I got the chance to read this post to shed some light on the women of these tribes. Thank you for sharing this!

  24. Wow! This is an interesting post to read. I never really thought ‘long-neck-tribe’ people were outcasted by their own people. I think I would still visit them but I would want to learn their ways and not exploit them.

  25. I’m so shocked that they’re slaves to the tourism industry! I didn’t visit for my own personal reasons but this should be enough to make anyway deter from visiting. I wish Thailand would provide them tools for a better life like they should for REFUGEES.

  26. Really interesting article, thank you for sharing! I’m wondering – did you ask them if it hurts?

  27. This was an challenging topic to tackle- and I like that you addressed it in such depth.

  28. This was such a fascinating read. I’ve always been intrigued by this tribe as well but I certainly felt the same way. Surely going there purely to see women with the neck rings is l.ike a human zoo. You make some great points though. Yes, their quality of life is probably better in Thailand, but that still doesn’t make it right.

    What hurts the most is how you say the neck ring tradition has carried on purely because of tourism. This makes me so sad but I’m so glad you took the opportunity to go there and write about it because perhaps bringing more attention to it can help change things.

  29. Thank you for sharing this, it was insightful (and also heartbreaking) to hear that the rings do not extend their necks, but instead crush their rib-cages and shoulders down, omg! Indeed, the women looked rather emotionless. I don’t even know how they can feel overly cheerful when it’s a fact that they remain as tourist-entertainers. I hope one day, freedom will be returned to them and they can seek a different, better life elsewhere.

  30. I LOVE THAT YOU WROTE ABOUT THIS!! I ended up skipping this bc it just felt wrong but this article was so beautifully written in a non-shaming manner and I really enjoyed learning the facts.

  31. Really interested as I have felt the same ‘visiting/intruding’ in tribal villages in the North of Thailand. I guess if it helps them to earn a living wage then that’s positive. I work with refugees in Bangkok and unfortunately refugees in Thailand generally have pretty awful living conditions. 🙁

  32. Such incredibly interesting subject. I saw pictures of these ladies once before but didn’t know much about who they are and why they wear the rings. I am glad I got to read this article but I would have never thought they are in a sense slaves of the tourism industry. I am so sad to learn this. I guess it’s never ethical to exploit traditions for gain, but ultimately, if money from tourism really helps them survive somehow, then surely this side of the story should be taken into account. We need to learn to live in a better world, free from exploitation that’s for sure.

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