Thailand is 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 women) 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?
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 made me 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.
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The story of the Kayan Long Neck Tribe
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?
The 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 stretcher, 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 protection from tigers. Several Karen tribe women were killed by tigers far back in the past. So the leader of the tribe decided to have women 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 at a particular time of a month were destined to wear the neck rings.
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 stretching 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.
What’s the life of the Long Neck Tribe in Thailand is 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.
We arrived at the village of shacks, where these women would live with their families. It was beautifully surrounded by 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 the 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 tells 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.
What options do Kayan people have in Thailand?
Families of the Karen Hill Tribe live all together in dedicated villages. These people are living with 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 apply to their status.
There are 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 live 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 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.
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.