Many travelers who come to Thailand look forward to visiting the long-neck tribes in the north. The Karen people are just one of the communities who continue to practice this age-old tradition in which women wear brass rings around their necks.
Historically, the reasons for wearing the rings are many. One thought is that these rings protected the wearer from the vicious bite of tigers. Another theory is that the rings make the women more attractive to potential mates. But, a separate theory says that the rings make the women less attractive to kidnappers working in the slave trade. Whatever the reason, they make a distinct impression on you when you see them.
I was looking forward to the visit because I was interested in learning more about the indigenous populations (although apparently the ancestors of this tribe originally came from Myanmar (Burma) as refugees). However, once we arrived at the outskirts of the village, I had serious doubts about continuing.
We entered the village, which was literally a lane of huts selling different handicrafts made by the Karen women. These women did not have the rings around their necks. The children who approached you to beg for money were in need of a good bath and possibly proper healthcare. I imagined as each busload of tourists arrived in their community, the drama would unfold like what was happening now . . . day in and day out.
It was eerie to be there. I felt as if I was at a human zoo where people were on display. I already have issues about animal zoos so this made me feel even worse. There was no explanation or educational segment where our guide told us about the history or culture of these people. The Karen had basic English skills that mostly focused on selling their goods. In no way did I feel like I was learning about local culture. It felt more like a sanctioned exploitation of these people than anything else.
At the end of the “high street,” you had to pay an extra fee to see the women with the rings around their necks. By this point, I was pretty disgusted by the entire enterprise and opted not to enter that part of the village. A friend I made on the tour, Abde, decided to go in and these are some of the photos he took.
The entire situation is difficult to understand. On one hand, the Karen, and other long-neck tribes, are definitely being exploited and to visit them is to continue the exploitation that has occurred for hundreds of years. Your attendance and the popularity of these tours enable this to continue. However, the people live off of the sales they make and the entrance fees you pay. They do not get financial help from the government and these small purchases help them survive. Without any programs to help them, what are they left with?