Visiting one of the numerous Karen Long Neck villages in Northern Thailand is one of the most exotic experiences on the planet. The mystery and beauty that surrounds the tradition of using brass rings for exaggerated jewellery is something better seen in person than in a magazine.
The Kayan are a subgroup of the Red Karen tribals, who have historically lived in the hills on the Myanmar (Burma) side of the Thai border. Nearly 40,000 members from the Karen tribe fled across the border into Thailand in the early 1980s and 1990s to escape civil war in their own country.
While the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving. Overall, the Long Neck Tribes live a rugged, tedious, and simple lifestyle, but the fruits of their labour are colourful and very lively.
The women are best known for their elongated necks, the Karen women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. A major reason why the Karen women put themselves through the neck elongating routine is simply to hold on to their heritage and tradition.
The first golden ring a girl gets when she is 5-years-old and then one ring is added every year until she’s 21. The women take them off only once a year for 3-4 hours. Their necks could break if the rings weren’t worn for longer than that. Taking off the hoops is a special ceremony and only women from the tribe can attend it.
While it may seem that the Karen women have unusually long necks, their traditional brass rings actually push their shoulders and rib cages down just making their necks seem longer. The brass rings, which are also around their shins and arms, are made out of one solid piece of metal making them quite heavy. Each time a woman adds a ring to her neck she is fitted with a new neckpiece that coils around.
In the years gone by local legend has is that the Long Neck practice of the brass rings was started not just for beauty, but also to protect against tigers and in some cases even just because the village leader said he preferred it.
Today many of the young Karen women are breaking free from this painful tradition and it is estimated that the neck lengthening practice only has a few generations of life left.
The women are excellent weavers and can be seen sitting around the village weaving all day. This is their main source of income in Thailand since the refugee hill tribe status given to them prevents them from getting any other mainstream work.
The Karen Long Neck traditional religion is called Kan Khwan, and has been practiced since the tribe migrated from Mongolia during the Bronze Age. It includes the belief that the Kayan people are the result of a union between a female dragon and a male human.
Kay Htein Bo is the most important Karen Long Neck festival which is celebrated every year in late March or early April. The festival is held to venerate the eternal god and creator messengers, to give thanks for blessings during the year, to appeal for forgiveness, and pray for rain. It is also an opportunity for Kayan from different villages to come together to maintain the solidarity of the tribe.
Pork and chicken along with rice is a part of their staple daily diet. It’s common to see pork chunks being dried up at various houses in the village. Every house in the village is made up of simple bamboo structure and hay roofing. The entire structure is raised to avoid flooding during the monsoon season.
The Karen long neck hill tribes are only found in the regions of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand and a visit to one of these villages surely give you a feel of reliving the pictures you once saw in a national geographic magazine.
The best way to get a real feel of the tribe is by spending a night in the village. Some villages have accommodation provisions which allow backpackers to spend an entire day with the tribe so you can get to know them better.
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