Over the years of traveling to different corners of the world, I find myself searching the hidden cultural gems that lie between the hustle and bustle of modern life. Making the trip over to Southeast Asia, I felt the pull of wanting to visit the north of Thailand to learn more about the Karen Long Neck Tribe and the curiosity behind the tradition that attracts people from all around the world.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, and before heading out on a day trip into the north, I wanted to gain a little more understanding about the history and culture of this particular hill tribe. After taking a closer look, it was interesting to read the negative perspectives of visiting the hill tribes in Thailand; marking those interested in visiting these people as fueling a ‘human zoo’. However, underneath the controversial perspectives, there lied more behind the golden necks within the cultural traditions of this tribe.
After all, Thailand is a country fueled by tourism because of the amazing food, landscapes, culture and smiling people. These benefits often cover up the black market side of tourism, including promoting infamous Tiger Temples and Elephant Trek- Riding that have been in the headline news around the world for its controversial treatment of abuse. The night before we went on the day trip to visit six hill tribes, I remember feeling worried as though I made the wrong choice. I got no sleep that night.
Waking up in the early morning, our private guide picked us up and we began our journey. The hour and half drive was filled with information about the history of the hill tribes. Our guide told us why these elegant women continue the traditions of wearing gold around their necks, wrists and legs. There is a prophecy that any girl that was born on a Wednesday was blessed by the gods and therefore would showcase the gold rings to symbolize their importance within their society. The other theory on why the gold neck tradition appeared was because of protection from tigers in the jungle that hunted humans and attack the neck to kill its prey. Since women are child bearers and seen as the givers of life, they were protected by wearing the gold rings.
When we arrived to visit the Long Neck hill tribe, our female guide walked with us through the community so that we could be able to communicate with the people. After all, I didn’t have a chance to spruce up on my Thai before heading to Southeast Asia. But I soon found out that this hill tribe spoke a different dialect that was not Thai or Burmese! Luckily, our guide was able to translate in a different dialect to help us out. When we arrived on the grounds, each individual had to pay 500 Baht (approx. $20CAN). Thomas and I felt a little outraged by the fact that there was a ticket price to enter the grounds but our guide explained that the Long Neck Tribe made no profit from this as it is a fee that goes directly to the government for the refugee land.
After paying to get onto the property, we walked straight into a standard outdoor market place. Wood carvings, scarfs and other trinkets were showcased as the women with golden necks smiled welcoming you to take a look. Because these people are not allowed to work outside of the ‘refugee camp’ this was the way they were able to make a 100% profit to support their families. Speaking with a young woman no more than the age of twenty, she explained that she began wearing her rings at the age of five. As our guide translated our conversation, the young woman appeared to be proud to show off her culture and their beautiful golden necks. The young woman grabbed a sample of rings so Thomas and I could see how the process was done. Grabbing the bundle of rings, I was surprised on how heavy they were!!!
Taking a look around the market booths one woman smiled at us with black stained teeth. The woman was from another hill tribe but was very interesting to talk to. With laughter and conversation, she offered us to try some bark chewing tobacco which over the years turns the teeth black. Out of respect Thomas and I tried it but as I attempted to chew the concoction I began to choke on the disgusting flavor. I had to spit it all out. The woman laughed as I apologized.
My favourite moment of the day however, was with an elder who is known as the ‘famous’ long neck because she is one of the oldest women who showcases her rings to the public eye. Speaking with her (through our guide) the women stated that she has had her rings on for 52 years! As I stood there in amazement, she continued to talk about the other rings she used to have on her legs and arms but how she decided to take them off. Her smile was enlightening and kind-hearted. When Thomas said to me ‘she is so beautiful’, the women caught wind on what Thomas was saying in English and smiled, blushing, covering her face. We laughed in awe and shared a memorable moment.
While purchasing a bracelet made from the same material as the rings from the elder's shop, she asked if I wanted a picture. As we began to wrap up our time, I asked each individual who I had spoken with if I could capture a photograph so I was able to share my experience to my family, friends and the blog. One woman thanked me for asking her first. As we began to pack up our belongings, thanking the women for their time, I witnessed something terrible. Another tourist couple came marching into the market place, walked up to one of the woman and began snapping their expensive camera in her face without an introduction, a smile, and with no consent. Thinking back to what I read before about the so called ‘human zoo’, I finally got it. There are tourists who come for the quick photo opportunity and could care less about the person behind the golden neck. I felt how de-humanizing it must have felt for that woman trying to work at her shop as this abrupt, arrogant, western-traveler got into her space caring less about her history and culture. As we drove away the anger boiled inside me and I began to reflect back on the day and what I had learned.
Personally, I am happy that I had the opportunity to visit the Karen Long Neck women. I feel honored by the woman who talked about their way of life and made us, outsiders, feel comfortable asking questions about their traditions. If you decide that you are interested in visiting this tribe (or any other culture really…), please take away some of the following things that can help make it a positive experience for everyone.