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.
Heading to the south of Thailand, to Phuket, we hoped for clear skies and warm weather. The night before our flight, we checked the weather and against our wishes, it looked like we would be caught in a rainstorm. Great...So much for that beautiful golden tan! After all… a tan for any Canadian traveler is proof that you actually went somewhere. But I guess we shouldn’t have expected any different, it was rainy season in Thailand. Sigh…
When we landed into Phuket Airport, we didn’t let the dark shades of grey clouds deter us from making our journey by ferry to Koh Phi Phi Island. Within three hours we would sit on a beautiful beach rain or shine. I was ready to feel fine sand between my toes and take a dip in that crystal clear water that I have seen plastered on every postcard of Thailand. However, on the day we arrived on Koh Phi Phi Island we began to feel the light drops of rain that turned into light showers and suddenly, torrential downpour. Being forcefully rained off the beaches, we headed to a nearby pub for some beer to pass the time. Looking around the pub it was evident that other backpackers had the same idea as us. Drinks, conversations of travel and oven-styled pizza were the alternative option to rainy days on the island. Alternatively, there was the option of heading to one of the many tattoo places available to get that special tattoo which was sparked by too many of those afternoon beers. Nothing better than a beer and tattoo combo, right!?
For us, we passed on the tattoo.
Koh Phi Phi was exactly what we expected…a party epicenter, complete with fire dancing, beach limbo, musical chairs and Thai shots flowing on the beach at the Slinky’s nightclub. Add in those Thai bucket drinks and upbeat music being blasted into the early morning and you have a party that never slowed down the dancing on the beach as it poured along the coastline. However, the next morning we woke up so tired, realizing we were not 21 years old anymore. #hangover
Fortunately, Thomas had splurged on getting a guesthouse equipped with an infinity pool that overlooked the island. It was amazing. We spent the majority of the day relaxing, as the clouds held up in our favor. Consistently checking the forecast for the next couple of days, it looked like sunshine was in the near future!! The next morning, we got up early and noticed the sun peeking out over the limestone cliffs. We instantly knew that the day was going to be perfect for island hopping. Rushing down to the pier, we booked a ‘Big Boat’ tour that would take us around the islands of the Koh Phi Phi region. The big boat tour was complete with kayaks and snorkeling, unlimited fresh drinking water, and provided a hearty Thai lunch with fruit. On the tour, we would visit Maya and Bamboo beach along with other destinations.
As soon as we were on the boat, I rushed to the top deck to lay out my towel and enjoy the rays of sunshine on my skin. Arriving at our first destination (Vikings Cave) we soaked in the beauty of the cliffs and colour of the aqua blue water. The water was clear and we were ready to swim! It took us only two minutes to get our snorkel gear and leap off the boat like a flying fish. The water felt amazing on our skin. Taking a look underwater, schools of yellow tail fish surrounded us. In the distance you could see a couple dark spots that appeared to be sponge uprooted from the coral reef beneath us. The rays of sun showcased the beautiful colours of the fish that swam around us. We were in paradise.
While we began to swim back towards the boat, Thomas shouted “watch out for those brown things! They sting!” Listening to Thomas, I began to worry about being stung and began to panic. My foggy goggles blinded my sight in the water. The boat sounded the horn indicating that time was up and to get back on the boat. Worried, I began to swim frantically…questioning if the brown things would get me! Thomas continued to warn me about how much the sting burned causing me to panic more. As soon as I lifted my arm to continue on wards I yelped in pain!!!!
I HAD BEEN STUNG BY THE BROWN THING!!!
I went into shell shock and curled up in a ball….floating in the water. Burning sensations running through my entire body, I shouted to Thomas that I couldn’t swim. Being the hero, Thomas swam back for me… being stung two more times in the process. As he pulled on my life jacket I was able to get composed enough to swim to the boat. Other passengers helped us back on board as they stated that they had tried to warn us about the jellyfish that surrounded Thomas and I. Looking out into the once clear water, it was now covered with medium-sized brown jellyfish!!! Horrified I couldn’t believe we were submerged amongst it all. Both of us injured… we took a look at our swollen arms; a crew member helped us with first aid. Thomas was stung on his arm, shoulder and head. I was stung on my inner bicep.
….and no…we did not have to pee on it.
As we continued venturing to other islands, the burning sensation continued putting a damper on wanting to get back into the beautiful ocean around us. When we reached Maya beach, I decided that the pain was worth the beauty around us. The infamous Maya beach from the movie 'The Beach' showcased that magical island paradise. The lush greenery, fine sand, clear water and limestone cliffs alongside with the traditional Thai boats sparked the appreciation of what surrounded us. Maya beach captured the beauty of Thailand, however, the popularity of the beach partly striped away some of that magical ambience.
The next couple of hours we had the luxury to venture to other beaches including Monkey Beach, which was my favourite. We had the opportunity to kayak to the beach and relax in the sand in peace. We were even lucky to encounter a monkey eating a bag of chips that were given to him by some silly tourist despite the sign stating “please don’t feed the monkeys” in five different languages. Ugh.
Shark point was our last stop before heading back to the main pier of Koh Phi Phi. With clear skies we planned to watch the sunset. Taking our last opportunity to snorkel in the ocean for the day, I built up the courage to get back into the water despite being attacked by a jellyfish. With no regrets, the tropical fish did not disappoint! As we watched the sunset floating in the water, the skies began to turn into shades of blue and orange while the sun hid behind a distant island. When we boarded the boat and sat along the edge, heading back to the pier, I breathed in the fresh salty air feeling forever grateful for the day.
When we came across Elephants World, it was an easy decision to sign up for the overnight stay (2 Days/1Night) online and we are so happy we made that choice! When we arrived on the grounds, the thought of being able to play and just ‘be’ with the elephants sparked all kinds of bucket list goals of mine. After all who wouldn’t want to pet an elephant!!!
The volunteers were kind hearted and very educated showcasing their love for these animals. We spent the first day prepping food and feeding the elephants while enjoying intervals of watching them interact with each other playing in the mud and bath time. Prepping food for the elephants included sorting out fruits and vegetables into each of the elephants designated baskets. I loved watching the elephants grab a watermelon with their trunk and eating it whole, grind and all. After fruits and vegetables, we tried our hand in cooking gourmet elephant food: Sticky-rice balls. The balls were a mixture of rice, squash, soft food pellets rolled in a nutrition powder. The elephants that are honored to be served these delicious rice balls were those that lost their adult teeth from age! Unfortunately, making dentures for elephants is too difficult! As we were making their sticky-rice balls, the two elephants watched in delight, reaching in and around us to try and get an early snack.
Once we completed the task of making the lunch, the two elephants that waited patiently indulged themselves. After all…did you know elephants eat 10% of their body weight! Crazy right!?! As we cleaned up and began to wash the dishes one friendly giant stuck around and hung out with us. It wasn’t too long before he used his trunk to get a fresh taste of water which caused Thomas to take the hose directly to his mouth which he definitely enjoyed!!!
After we provided lunch to some of the elephants, it was lunch time for us humans. Lunch was provided to all day guests and included a variety of traditional Thai food. It was buffet style and so yummy! After lunch, we gathered back together and headed to the river. Some of the elephants were taking there afternoon baths and we got to join in! It was my favourite part of the day and words cannot describe the feeling of happiness and connection I felt to these beautiful giants as I washed away the mud and gave them a good scrub down with the brush.
When 4pm arrived the day tour individuals were picked up and we were left at the sight. We were fortunate to be one of two couples staying overnight. We were shown to our bungalow which included a mosquito net and bed. It was perfect. After we settled in and changed into dry clothes we headed back out to join the mahouts in the fields where the elephants rest for the rest of the evening. During dinner and in the common area we were able to hang out with the volunteers and get to know their global backgrounds; all with one common interest; elephants. We were invited to join in on a small get together by the river that night for a volunteer’s birthday. There we had the opportunity to hang out with the local mahouts who work and care so hard for their elephants. We spent the rest of the night in very broken English conversation and dance.
The next morning we woke up early with a full day itinerary. After breakfast, we gathered baskets of corn to go feed the elephants privately. At first only two elephants joined in on the meal but it wasn’t long until we noticed one….two….three….four…extra trunks getting in the way. Suddenly, we were surrounded by six elephants all in search for that corn in our hands. This was the moment where we really got to see the personalities of the elephants and we couldn’t help but laugh as some stepped in front of another or gave that extra little nudge trying to say “hey I am still here you know!”. My favourite thing was watching the different ways they chose to eat the corn. Some ate it whole as others would wait until you took the green leaves off because they were picky and disliked the green. We found ourselves quickly running back to get more corn once or twice but each time it was fun and a highlight of our trip!
After the long hauls of corn, it was time to take some elephants for a bath in the river. This time it was some personal time with the elephants and just us ‘over-nighters’. Over the course of the day we received special time with the elephants away from the day tour which gave us an experience of a lifetime. When it was mud bath time for the 28 elephants on the reserve, we spent the time going floating in the river. The 45 minute floating adventure down the river with nothing but a life jacket was so peaceful. We were able to enjoy the natural surroundings…a part of the real Thailand has to offer. When we reached our final destination back at Elephants World, we had another opportunity to hang out in the river with the elephants and feed them our goodbye snack consisting of those delicious watermelons they enjoyed eating whole. As we grabbed our belongings and waited for the bell to ring to let us know that our ride was here to leave, we said goodbye to the mahouts, volunteers and our giant friends that forever took a piece of our heart with them.
A special thank you to Elephants World for the amazing time.