#15 tales from Indochina: Karen Long Neck

During our stay in Chiang Mai, we took a day trip to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. As part of the trip, we visited a Karen Long Neck village.  Historically, the Karen or the Kayan people were a tribe which used to live in the hills in the Shan State that border Thailand and Myanmar. However, due to the conflict between some tribal groups and the Burmese military which started in the late 1980s, many Kayan people fled their hills and became refugees in Thailand. Among the many refugee camps set up, there was a section known as “Long Neck” which was marketed as a tourist attraction. So many tourists visit the Long Neck each year to the extent that the village is self-sufficient on tourist money. Why do tourists visit the Karen Long Neck village? The main draw of the village is that the women look “exotic” with their unusually elongated necks and tourists want to have a close encounter with them. It is said that the heavy brass rings, which they place around their necks, put a lot of pressure on their shoulders and that results in their necks appearing elongated.

Why do these women put the brass rings around their neck? Our guide said there were 3 possible reasons. 1) It is considered “beautiful” to have many brass rings around their neck by their culture. 2) It goes back to a myth about how the rings protect women from tigers. 3) The women want to appear “less attractive” to the Burmese soldiers in the war-torn region.

To me, it seems ironical that these women have to justify their practice to the tourists in their own village and yet we do not feel compelled to justify our behaviour to them. We do not need to explain to them why we need to take photos of them; we do not need to explain the narcissistic function of the selfie stick; we do not need to explain why we choose to spend our money to travel here to see them. Sometimes I think we tend to make the mistake of believing that what is normal is right. We seem to demand an explanation from the people who deviate from the norm. That is not fair. If you can’t give a good reason why you browse through the NewsFeed on Facebook everyday, you cannot expect other people to have valid reason(s) behind their practice. Even in the absence of any reason, we should accept that people can choose to do things that are different from us.

I don’t know if any of the reasons given for the brass rings is true but I most certainly wish that things will improve for them. I hope that the fighting in their hills will cease someday or at least the Thai government will allow them to find employment outside of this village one day.

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