Thailand’s Long Neck Tribes

"Long neck Karen", Ban Nai Soi- Thailand

A “long neck” woman garbs me in the traditional costume of the Padaung Karen. Ban Nai Soi, Thailand.

Within seconds, my collarbone started burning from the weight of the metal necklace.  8 rings, fused together into a decorative cuff, pushed my chin up.  Swallowing took effort.

“Hurry up, please, this is slightly uncomfortable,” I stage-whispered to my boyfriend.

Smiling for the flash, I felt like an insensitive tourist.  The Padaung, a culturally distinct group within the Karen peoples of Burma and Thailand, wore the cumbersome metal necklaces from childhood to death.

And mine were merely a tie-on prop.

Like most Western travelers, I watched in awe as these long-necked women – often referred to as a “giraffe tribe” – carefully went about their daily tasks.  Several sat on elevated wooden platforms and wove bright yarns into patterned scarves for sale.  One slowly wound kelly green string into a giant spool.  Another bounced a topless baby on her hip.

"Long neck women", making handicrafts, Ban Nai Soi- Thailand

Two Padaung women work on scarves. Many have worn away the hair on the top of their heads by constantly wearing a tight fabric head piece.

While the 50 households in Ban Nai Soi, northern Thailand, grow pineapples and fruits, or hire out to surrounding farms as laborers, their existence is directly tied to the tourism industry.  Many families earn a steady income from selling handicrafts to travelers who visit the village.

However, as refugees from  Burma, the luxury of living outside the nearby refugee camp – where many of their Burmese compatriots are held – is dependent on their popularity among curious sightseers.  Ban Nai Soi was built 15-20 years ago, when Thai officials recognized the benefits of drawing travelers to the area with images of elongated necks and exotic costumes.

"Long neck village', Ban Nai Soi- Thailand

Ban Nai Soi, Thailand, is a temporary settlement for 50 Karen refugee families from Burma.

Inside Burma, the Padaung women’s zoo-like affect is also influenced by tourism.  Visitors to Inle Lake will be both tempted to, and discouraged from, supporting any businesses employing the females as a marketing lure.

"Long neck villagers," Ban Nai Soi- Thailand

A woman in full “long neck” dress sells us pineapples, while a man – wearing normal, modern clothing – looks on. Ban Nai Soi, Thailand.

And yet, there I sat, embarrassed at my discomfort as the woman behind me bobby-pinned a multi-hued headdress to my blonde locks.

“You look just like a Karen,” one of my boyfriend’s students teased.

“You’re lucky to be a man,” I snapped back.

While the Padaung women put on their first ring at age seven or eight, the men do not wear any such unusual jewelry.  In Burma, my boyfriend and I were told that the tradition of stretching necks is based on an old method to deter slave raiders across the Thai-Burma border.  However, the Karen woman I worked with explained that it is also still considered a cosmetic display of beauty.

Now, U Thein Sein’s government has asked Thai officials to send the villagers of Ban Nai Soi, and other Karen “long neck” communities, back to their original homes inside Burma.

Will these women be safe from gawking tourists there?  Or is a life of occasional camera-happy visitors in Thailand preferably better to the unknowns of repatriation in Burma?  Travelers interested in seeing the “long neck” women and Paduang Karen culture, in either country, should consider these questions.

I’m not offering answers; just, remembering the weight of that necklace, the prettiness of its cultural irregularity, and the tourist guilt that was lifted off with it…

"Long neck woman weaving," Ban Nai Soi- Thailand

More and more Padaung Karen women are choosing to remove their rings, though their iconic jewelry still draws travelers.


One response to “Thailand’s Long Neck Tribes

  1. Pingback: Thanka Cheeks: The Impact of Burmese Refugees in Thailand’s Land of Smiles « Too Mutch For Words·

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