Karen Long neck Tribe of Chiang Mai

IMG_20150928_160846For some tourists and back packers, visiting the Karen Long neck Tribe women, or long necks is just another photo opportunity for them in their Thailand adventure.

There are even many tourist operators who stop at these hill tribes in the northern jungles just for photo opportunities for a price.

But would you really take these opportunities if you really knew who these women were and you understood their current situation and why they have become such a tourist attraction?

Over 20 years ago, an intensifying civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army caused Kayar residents to flee Burma, Myanmar. The Thailand government granted them temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status. Nowadays , the 500 or so Kayans (also known as Padaung people) live in guarded villages on the northern Thai border.

The tribe customs revolve around some women wearing brass rings that elongate the appearance of their necks. This exotic and criticized tradition inspired the creation of many tourism villages in the 1980’s. Some Padaung moved to these artificial hill tribe residencies with work permits to make a living on tourism. But without citizenship, Kayans have limited access to utilities such as electricity, roads, health care and schools for education. Furthermore, Thai authorities refuse to allow Kayans to resettle outside tourist villages, claiming they are economic migrants and not real refugees.

There is an estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between 400 and 500THB to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly.

Instead, neck-ring-wearing-women sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops, essentially working in a live-in gift shop.

While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.

My experience involved attending a manufactured village 30 minutes from Chiang Mai, in Mae Raem. The village is called the Baan Tong Luang Eco-agricultural Village. There was a 500THB entry fee. Inside the manufactured Eco village, children were playing, women were seen going about their daily duties, and the village was absent of men. Once the tourists started walking up the dirt streets between the thatched houses, the women and children would quickly run to the front, to make the most of the opportunity to make tips for photos, or sell trinkets and materials to the tourists.


Personally I found it no different to attending an animal zoo accept that we are dealing with displaced humans that are being exploited by a government that’s hell bent on the tourist dollar.

I did not take many photos, I was torn ethically between wanting to share their story, and not wanting to perpetuate their situation. I feel the photo of the young girl says it all. Absolute disdain for their situation.

If you feel you want to go to one of these places, don’t simply turn up and take photos like most farang do, spend some time, talk to the people, even take some fruit to share with them as the money you forked out to enter the village does not go towards helping them.



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