Long Neck Karen Tribe, Mae Hong Son, Northern Thailand
The Karen tribe are Burmese refugees from the Kayah state, just across the border from Thailand.
This subgroup of the Red Karen, or Karenni escaped from their country and were set up in villages by the Thai government. The Karen villages can be found in a few places in the north of Thailand, in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son provinces.
are most noted for the women of the villages who wear brass rings around their necks, forearms and shins. Because of these rings, especially on the neck, the Karen are known locally as ‘The Long Neck Karen’ by Thais and tourists alike. The names used to label the tribe can be crude, such as ‘Femmes Giraffes’, but in Burmese they are actually called the ‘Padaung’ tribe.
Girls of the Karen first start to wear the brass rings by the age of 5.
The men are mainly farmers, but the women have a rich history crafting, from wood carving to weaving.
The brass rings used on the neck, forearms and shins are actually one single piece of solid brass. The weight and pressure of the brass rings crush the shoulders and ribs of the wearer, giving the illusion of a ‘long neck’, hence the name. Each time a woman gets a new brass ring added, it’s actually a whole new piece that is coiled around and around making it look like individual rings.
Some of the Karen women choose to wear the rings out of a sense of heritage, others do for beauty, while still others will use the rings as protection against tigers. In some cases, a village leader may have preferred the rings and forced the issue. These days though, the younger generation of Karen women are breaking with tradition, and it’s thought that the practice won’t last much longer.
There are lots of blogs with posts about the Karen tribe.
Some focus more on the moral side of things. For instance, there is an entrance fee you have to pay to get into the village to see the tribe. People wonder what percentage of this actually gets back to the Karen, or whether this is a sort of ‘human zoo’.
After my first visit, I can tell you I won’t be going back to any of the villages. I definitely had the ‘human zoo’ feeling, and don’t want to support that kind of tourist attraction.
There’s no doubt that the Karen are a real tribe with a real heritage of wearing these brass rings that give them a unique look. It’s up to you to decide if these people are being taken advantage of, and then act accordingly.
There are three long established
and relatively easily accessed villages lying just west of Mae Hong Son: Huay Phu Kaeng, which can only be reached by a 30-minute boat ride down the Pai river;
Baan Sob Soi, around 25 kilometers away on a rough road, and
Huay Sua Tao, a 20-minute boat ride or 17 kilometer drive along a paved road. Huay Sua Tao is the most frequently visited, and either of these will cost between 300 – 500 baht, plus the boat fee if you’re going to Huay Phu Kaeng.
As well as the Karen in northern Thailand, there are other tribes with their own unique cultures, such as the Akha, Yao, Palong, Kayor, and Hmong (Meo).
As with all of our trips, it’s about getting out there and experiencing the local culture and pace of life. The hill tribes in the north of Thailand can give you a rare glimpse into a world that is mostly lost to our modern ways of life. Enjoy!