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Kayan Long Neck Village in Northern Thailand

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.

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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!

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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:


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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.

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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.

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Comments (7)

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Candi, what a fascinating post. It is so interesting to read about the neck coils. That just looks so uncomfortable, but I'm sure if that's how the girls were raised that they are fine with it.

It looks like you enjoyed the experience of getting to know more about their culture and getting to spend time with the villagers. I'm sure that your guide is right and the people are fine with visitors, so you shouldn't feel guilty.

Great photos of the both of you and some of the people you met! And the guitar your husband was playing with looks pretty cool!

Thanks so much for continuing to share your experiences. I'm looking forward to your next post.

sheri:

A really fascinating post, Candi. I am really glad that you decided to visit that village and share the story of Kayan women/girls. Loved the photos!

Candi, what an interesting post. I really appreciate your sensitivity and reflection on the issue, and that it ended up being a good experience for you. The little girls are so cute but wow, for the adults it must be very painful!

Anne:

As Chiocciola says, you've portrayed this tradition with great sensitivity. I'm afraid I am sitting here scrunching up my neck in horror. I don't mean that as a derogatory comment on their tradition, by the way, just that I can barely handle a loose turtleneck for any lenght of time, let alone be permanently encased in brass coils! I guess they must be used to it though.

Although it is cultural, I do hope someday this practice is stopped. I understand it is cultural but it seems cruel to me and I wonder if the girls really had a choice if the would choose to start wearing the coils. I also wonder just what damage occurs orthopedically and if their life expectancy is less or if they are in significant pain as they grow older. I guess if the men also wore them, it would not upset me as much.

Hi,

While travelling in Chiang Rai last year, I visit the Hill Tribe Museum. They were saying that the Kayan were often lured by unethical business men who created tourist attractions out of these refugees from Burma. Of course, they accept it because it brings some income but the businessman who brings the tourists makes the most money. I recognize that you do say that you “remain sceptical about (your) feelings” and I don’t condemn travellers for visiting Kayan villages. But I would advise travellers to visit the Hill Tribe Museum before signing up for a trip with a tour operator.

Keep on travelling.

Julia P.:

Actually it is true, Kayan women are used as a tourist attraction by the Thai government, who did not even sign the UN Refugee Convention, denying these tribes the right of education, and to work in the country. They are imprisoned in this no-man's land which is the northern Thai boarder. It also seems that the Thai government refuses to issue the passports to Kayan tribes who were offered full citizenship by countries like Finland and New Zeland. I hope these information will be useful for you, the next time you go to Thailand. These poor women are prisoners, their children will never have the opportunity to choose a school, to go to university, to leave that place. And the fact that tourists go to see them, as if they were zoo animals, doesn't help.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 30, 2009 2:03 PM.

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