I remain skeptical about my feelings towards visiting hill tribe villages in Thailand. In a way, I feel like by visiting them I am exploiting them and invading their privacy, on the other hand, the villages we visited seem to expect us and welcome us, and it is a lot of fun to learn about their lives and cultures. So when Sam and Jay, our trekking guides, suggested that we visit a Karen long neck village while we were in northern Thailand, I was hesitant, but they assured us that the village relies on tourism to generate income, so my curiosity beat my guilt, and we stopped to visit the Muang District Padaung:Karen Long Neck Village.
The Padaung are a sub-group of Karen tribe, originating from Eastern Burma, near the Thailand Border. They call themselves Kayan, and have their own language and culture. Due to conflict with the military regime in Burma in the late 1980s/early 1990s, many Kayan tribe people fled to neighboring Thailand, and settled among other hill tribe villages, mainly in the the Muang District and near Chiang Dao , both in northern Thailand.
An interesting aspect of Kayan women cultural identity( and the main reason people visit this village) is the tradition of wearing coils of brass rings around their necks. However, contrary to popular belief, and name of the village, Kayan women do not actually have longer necks, but rather compressed rib cages that make their necks appear long. Kayan tribe girls start wearing brass rings around their necks, as well as rings on the forearms and legs, at age of five or six years. As these heavy rings push the collarbone down, more rings are added until the vertebrae is squashed as far down as it goes. The average adult woman wears a brass coil that weigh around seven lbs. I got to hold one, and it felt heavy!
Kayan girls and women wear these coils while sleeping, eating, weaving, bathing and they seldom take them off(Just imagine the uncoiling and coiling of these rings!). Many of them line the rings with a piece of cloth underneath, I am assuming to lessen the pressure from direct contact. I don't know where the tradition came from, this is what wikipedia suggests:
Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested, often formed by visiting anthropologists, who have hypothesized that the rings protected women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive to other tribes. Contrastingly it has been theorized that the coils originate from the desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism, as women have more slender necks than men. It has also been suggested that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore . The coils might be meant to protect from tiger bites, perhaps literally, but probably symbolically.Kayan women, when asked, acknowledge these ideas, but often say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity (one associated with beauty).
Men of the village spend their day farming, and women weave and create crafts while tending to their booths where they sell what they make.Jay, our guide,translated to us what one of the village women, who'd just recently moved to Thailand, told him about their hard life in Burma, and long journey(a lot of it on foot) they took to cross the border to Thailand. And even though, to my spoiled self, I thought their lives in the village looked hard, she said that they were very happy with their new place, and had much nicer and easier lives than what they had in Burma.
We walked around the village, watching kids at play, women at work. We shopped some, and Bill played a teak guitar. Despite my feeling of guilt, I am happy that we got to visit the Long Neck Village, and sneak a peek at their culture.