Meet the ladies from the Karen hilltribe, among the tourists known as the ‘Long Neck  Tribe’. A reference to the brass rings the women and girls wear around the necks. Due to the weight of these rings, it causes the shoulders to stoop and drop. That way it looks like they have longer necks.

Because the term ‘Long Neck Tribe’ sounds a bit commercial and derogatory, I stick with the real name. The Karen. A hilltribe that fled Myanmar because of years of oppression and military violence. At the moment the Karen live across the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. They try to make a living with the sales of handmade crafts to tourists.  Completely different to the way they used to make their living in the seventies. Back then it was the trade of opium that generated the money.

Karen Bergstam Thailand

There are several stories about the reason why the women wear the rings. They say the rings made the women less attractive for men from other tribes. Another story says the rings made it difficult for tigers and forest ghosts to bite in the necks. A third story says the rings are a reference to the descent from the swan-like dragon. Anyhow, the rings are an important part of the culture of the Karen.

Not every girl is obliged to wear the ring. This is only intended for the girls that are born in a certain moon phase. But in reality more and more girls start to wear the rings so that they could earn some money, regardless if they were born in the right moon phase or not. These girls cannot go to school. It’s sad, but also necessary for the Karen to make money and to continue the existence of their tribe.

karen hut thailand

Walking into the Karen village feels like entering a medieval open air museum. Against the green jungle in the background the village consists of wooden huts surrounded by pottering chickens and romping dogs. It seems like an idyllic picture, but for me it felt like a human zoo. Open huts lined up next to each other and the Karen girls just sitting there, waiting for their photo to be taken. Tourists go crazy over this and take pictures of everything without buying anything or making some sort of conversation. These girls are no longer girls, but they’ve become objects to talk and gossip about.

Somewhat awkward I walked in silence through the village, smiled at each and every girl and looked at the handicraft they’ve worked so hard for. A colorful shawl, a necklace or a little clay figure. It’s handicraft, but also their income. And so I bought something here and there. Still I kept having that strange feeling. When I buy something, I’m also prolonging this open air museum. And so more girls cannot go to school, because they choose to wear rings instead. But what’s the alternative? Not to go? It’s difficult to form an opinion about this. The sale of handicraft is their income. Besides, this life in Thailand is better than the life they used to have in Myanmar. The only thing you could do is, if you decide to go, treat the Karen with respect and dignity. Walk up to them, smile and make conversation, because they’re not objects, they are human beings.

Karen Bergstam Thailand

Did you ever visit the Karen hilltribe? What did you think of it?


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