The Karen are a tribal group who fled Myanmar (formerly Burma) and have settled mostly on the Thailand–Myanmar border.
In December 2015, John and I had the opportunity to visit the Karen Padaung tribe, a sub-group of Red Karens.
The Karen Padaung are among the smallest Karen tribes in Thailand. They are known as “Karen Long Neck” for wearing stacks of brass rings on their neck.
A Karen tradition is to beautify the women of the tribe in special ways, so the Karen Padaung glamorize their women with these brass rings.
It appears that the brass rings act to elongate the wearer’s neck, but that is an optical illusion.
The weight of the rings actually push the clavicle and upper ribs down causing the shoulders to dramatically slope.
This neck ring adornment is started when the girls are 5 or 6 years old and additional rings are added each year.
A woman in Plam Piang Din Village wears 37 brass rings around her neck and this is considered ideal.
The Padaung women sell sarongs, shawls, and blankets made on a small loom set up with a strap that wraps around the waist:
And visitors are encouraged to purchase something from their beautiful collection.
So, is it ethical to visit the Karen Long Neck Village or is it a Human Zoo?
That question came up when we were researching our visit, and admittedly, I was a bit concerned at first.
When we arrived, the women were busily working on the looms and it felt a little staged.
I quickly realized that the Karen Padaung were giving me exactly what they thought I was asking of them.
I raised my camera, they posed.
As soon as I put my camera down and began to interact with them, instead of gawking at them, the atmosphere changed.
I’m sure many tourist stay long enough to snap a few photos and buy a souvenir, so it only makes sense: give the people what they came for.
When John and I connected with them and treated them like the real people they are, they relaxed.
The babies went back to playing:
And we were welcomed to explore further into the village for a little closer look into their lives.
If your travels take you to one of the Karen Long Neck Villages in Thailand, please take the opportunity to connect with the tribe.
Their beauty goes much deeper than their creative makeup and shiny brass rings around their neck.
Our visit to the Karen Long Neck Village was part of a full-day tour we went on with Travel Hub Chiangmai.
Their full-day tour to the Chiang Rai province offered a lot of flexibility based on the things we wanted to do and see.