If you grew up glued to the television when National Geographic was on, it’s likely you’ll have seen women and young girls with numerous gold rings piled high around their neck. I was one of those kids, fascinated by different cultures throughout the world and the way their traditions and beliefs had a direct impact on what they wore and what modifications they made to their body. From the moment I found out I was going to be traveling throughout Northern Thailand, I knew that I wanted to visit the Karen Long Neck Village in Mae Hong Son to be able to see these women from T.V up close and in person.
Given various ethical reasons and based on what I had read online, I began to have mixed feelings as to whether I should actually go. After a fair bit of person brain-battling, I ultimately decided I wanted to experience this for myself and form my own opinion as opposed to letting other peoples’ stories on blogs and forums sway my mind.
Visiting the Karen Long Neck Tribe in Mae Hong Son was part of a package tour from Pai. You won’t find many tour services that are willing to lower their prices, so expect to pay about ฿1,500 for the day tour. You do get to visit quite a few other places along the way (which I’ll write about in my next post!) and it’s about a 3 hour drive from Pai to Mae Hong Son, so you can kind of understand where their price-point is coming from.
I wanted to enter the village with little expectations and just take it as it comes, but I have to admit, it was a very bizarre experience. When I heard “Karen Long Neck Village”, I figured I would be wandering around an open-concept rural community where I would see their homes, the women and girls doing everyday tasks, and so forth. This was, unfortunately, not the case.
After we got out of our car, we followed a sign down a dusty dirt road that pointed us down in the direction of the Long Neck Village. After a few steps, we walked past vendors on either side of us selling clothes, jewelry, and other little trinkets. There was a lady there who was sewing, but otherwise it was eerily dead and felt a bit odd walking through this “tourist trap” before entering the village.
As I walked into the “village” (AKA a walking strip with tables set up on either side where the Long Neck women are selling souvenirs – refer to picture below) I had a rush of mixed emotions.
Firstly, I couldn’t believe that their “village” was more like a market than an actual village. Everything was very staged, had an air of awkwardness, and did not feel authentic at all. The whole purpose, from their end, of you entering the village is to buy the goods that they’re selling. Some of the women will steer you towards buying things and you can’t help but feel a little guilty and pressured.
Secondly, the place was dead with only one other couple in sight. I found this to be both a negative and positive of the experience. The negative was that all of the attention was placed on myself and my friend, so when we approached a stall all eyes were on us. Because of this, I felt obligated to buy something from them. On a positive note, however, that allowed me some time to actually sit down and speak with a few of the younger women who had some incredible stories to share.
When I was speaking with these women, they talked about how they were all refugees from Burma who came to Thailand to make a better life for themselves (though I’m not sure that has turned out to be the case). When I asked if the process of adding additional coils to their neck was painful, the women simply smiled and said no. I had previously thought that this process elongated their neck, hence their name “Long Neck”, however, I learned that this process actually is pushing down on their collar bone and crunching their torso inwards, giving the appearance of a longer neck.
On a table, they had the coiled gold necklaces cut in half so that visitors could try them on to experience what it might be like wearing them. After putting one on, I was hit with just how heavy the brass actually is around your neck. I also lost almost all mobility of my head and found, in general, that it was very uncomfortable to wear. Honestly can’t imagine wearing one of these every single day of my life.
My general thoughts on visiting the Karen Long Neck Village are still mixed. I am glad that I went because it did open my eyes to the reality of their lives and the daily struggles that they face. This has definitely been an experience I won’t soon forget. However, I was really put off by the way the village was set up like a market. Perhaps my experience would have varied drastically (whether for better or worse, I’m not sure) if I had gone during the peak season when more tourists would be milling about. Either way, I do think if going to the Karen Long Neck Village was ever on your mind, you should just do it and make your own opinions after you’ve had the experience.