Karen Long Neck Village – Culture & Traditions or Mistreatment?

When it comes to culture, there are some things that I will never be able to fully understand and that will always remain a mystery. The more I travel across the world and experience different countries, the more I am faced with situations that I have never seen and living conditions that are far from anything that I have ever experienced.
On my exploration through the northern part of Thailand, I stopped at the Karen Long Neck Tribe, a place that many people talk about as an interesting, yet very controversial tourism trap.
The Karen Tribe came to Thailand from Burma whenever violence and war took over their country. Thailand granted them the permission to live in the country and they made their living based on tourism.
These women stick out by the brass coils that they wear around their neck, starting from the age of five years old and each year adding weight as another ring is added.

Although the children start wearing these rings around five or six years old, at about 15 they are given the choice to continue wearing them or take them off permanently.
In order to get an idea of how these rings felt, I tried them on. Within just a few seconds all I could think about was the discomfort that these women must feel wearing this every day, even as they shower and sleep.
While the Karen women mentioned that there was no discomfort to their neck, it was hard for me to believe that the pressure of these rings did not create some sort of discomfort and soreness.
However, despite the discomfort they it might bring, many people wear the rings and have been following this tradition for decades. Through a translator, the Karen lady explained that the rings were originally put for two different reasons: to protect them from tiger attacks (tigers tend to attack first from the neck), and then to keep men from other tribes away.

During my visit I met a Karen lady that had 26 rings around her neck, which is equivalent to around 4 kg (8.8lbs). Her rings were placed on her at five years old she has never taken them off.
Every country around the world has their own definition of beauty based on different factors: skin color, length of hair, height, body shape, weight etc.
The Karen women believe that the real beauty is determined by the amount of rings one wears around their neck. The more rings one has, the more gorgeous and appealing she is.


Karen women are seen throughout their little village hard at work, typically weaving on a back strap loom. The children in the village were running around and playing, but apart from their energy and happiness, the village was dead.

The general feel of the village was unpleasant and left me feeling solemn.


While many people think that the purpose of the rings is to make their neck longer, when it reality it only compresses the should blades, forcing them down and giving them the appearance of a long neck.

Many people say that if you wear the rings during an entire lifetime that your neck would snap, but the Karen ladies mentioned that it is untrue and there have been many cases of ladies that have taken the rings off without a problem.

The more one looks into information on the Karen Long Neck Tribe, the more one will find about their negative feelings on the issue. However, the real question to be answered here is:
Is it better for these families to be in Thailand, making money from tourism so that they can live and take care of their families, give their kids education, or return to Burma where living and working conditions may not be so favorable?
In my travels around the world, I strive to travel as ethical as possible, only supporting tourism that is based around the fair treatment of humans, animals, and children and for that reason I had such mixed feelings after leaving this village. I was misinformed on the village before visiting and it turned out to be something completely different than I thought.

To be honest, I write this article with very mixed feelings, knowing that it might raise controversial feelings in the minds of the readers.
To answer the question from earlier “is it better for the Karen ladies to be in Thailand working in tourism or in Burma,”  the answer is I don’t know.
In my heart I believe at times that it’s OK to not know. I would need to spend more time with the ladies, do more research and take more than just one trip to the village in order to form a well rounded opinion on this topic.

Would I return?

Probably not…..

Do I regret going?

No, Because I learned a lot from the trip and I was able to base my Opinion around my own personal opinion and experience.
It’s not a place that I would highly recommend to visit, but I think if you Want to see it for yourself, there are some steps you can implement in order to travel and respect the situation as much as possible.
1. Learn as much as you can before going
2. Ask first before taking a a picture
3. Don’t be afraid to Ask questions
4. Buy a local handmade craft
5. Don’t judge without taking time to get to know the full story
6. See them as humans with feelings and not just an attraction

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