Sahib Singh Sadana
Long Neck Village of Chiang Rai. A very different side of Thailand.
The Karen are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills of Myanmar side of the Thai border. Best recognised for their elongated necks, the Karen women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. While the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving. Overall the Long Neck Tribes live a rugged, tedious, and simple lifestyle, but the fruits of their labour are colourful and very lively.⠀ There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest. Fleeing to Thailand was a safe choice for many, but the ones that came are mostly illegal immigrants and do not have option for gaining Thai citizenship. While things are much better for the Karen that have fled from Burma, the lack of opportunity for the Long Necks has divided them into small groups living in various parts of Thailand.⠀
On the one hand, it is beautiful they have been able to keep their traditions alive, and on the other, it is a struggle to balance the new world with the old. A visit to a Karen tribal village as a tourist isn’t without its ethical questions, but I am glad I went there as I got to know a lot about them. ⠀
While it may seem that the Karen women have unusually long necks, their traditional brass rings smash their shoulders and rib cages down just making their necks seem longer.⠀
The reason, why the Karen women put themselves through the neck lengthening routine, is simply tradition. In the early days of the Long Necks, the practice of the brass rings was started not just for beauty, but also to protect against tigers and other animals bite.⠀ Before visiting the village, an ethical question was there in my mind, whether I was visiting a human zoo? Things changed in a hurry the second I set my camera down and start directly interacting with the Karen women. In short, it will only feel like a human zoo if you make it feel like one. Talk to the women and ask about the goods they are selling, because the second you can overcome gawker mode, you’ll start to feel happy you visited.⠀