Thursday, January 13, 2011

LONG NECK KAREN- Thailand's forgotten tribe

Most people know of the Karen people from television and magazine documentaries. Have you ever seen a long neck Karen woman?? The Karen are often referred to as the " long neck " or "giraffe " tribes. It is only the women who wear the brass rings. This tribe serves as a tourist attraction for visitors around the globe. They are refugees that fled from Burma in the late 80's and 90's. According to our tour guide, there are seven different hill tribes in Thailand; Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha and Mien. Today we are visiting the Karen Hill Tribe. They usually occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture and planting rice. Most of the Karen women are skilled weavers. In this village where I visited --- there were only 10 families here.

The Karen wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colors and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics.

While I was at the village I saw a photo which they were selling ---- it shows how these women look like without the brass coils on their neck.

For a entrance fee of 500 Baht, tourists can visit the long neck tribes. The idea of witnessing first hand what a real tribal village looks like is a great lure for many travelers, but being able to see the famous long neck tribes is what really brings the crowd.

Visiting the village where these people live consists of rows of stalls filled with colorful scarves, purses, clothing and traditional looking handicrafts. Most of the women in the village wore their beautiful colorful clothing.

The Padaung custom prescribes that girls begin to wear these brass rings that weigh as much as 11 pounds before puberty sometimes even younger ( at the age of 5 ). Children are fitted for their coils starting out with one or two brass links...... The number of brass rings are increased gradually as they grow up.

According to our tour guide/ driver, they believe that these coils will protect them from the bite of a tiger or it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. But to these women, they believe that having an extra long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and probably attract a better husband. Being very inquisitive, I asked what would happen if they took out the coils on their necks... I was surprised with what he said... " by removing those coils on their neck would lead to suffocation and death, because the neck muscles would not be strong to support the head".

I had mixed feelings about visiting the village the first time but tourism is their main source of income. They are not eligible to attain citizenship in Thailand, medical care, education or legal employment. However, when you enter the village, there is a donation box where you can leave money to help support education and medical necessities of the village.

Now that you have seen the pictures, and since there are many myths associated with these women, let me dispel a few of them from what I discovered when I visited them:

* The coils do not " elongate " the neck. It is a slow process that gradually displaces the collar bone and the rib cage, thereby making their necks appear longer.

* Additional coils are added each year. You can get an approximation of their age by the number of coils worn.

I enjoyed my visit to the long neck Karen Hill tribe. The people were extremely nice and it was interesting to see people with a unique culture that exists in small numbers in a small part of the world. The souvenirs were some of the same things you can find all over Thailand but I felt better buying stuff directly from them. Even if you do not plan to buy souvenirs or gifts, the visit to the village will make you really appreciate all the handicrafts you see sold throughout the country.

I must admit I felt like I was strolling onto a page of National Geographic magazine when I entered the village. I definitely will recommend the trip to the Karen Hill tribe to anyone who visits Chiang Mai.


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