Peter and I had a few days in Northern Thailand in February 2012, as part of a wider tour of IndoChina. “IndoChina” in three weeks, with quite a crammed itinerary, so our research in advance wasn’t as it might have been. We were to spend a day in the Golden Triangle (learning things we didn’t know about the British and the Opium trade, but that’s a whole other story), and as a last minute suggestion, Eark (our guide) recommended a detour to see the Karen tribe, the long-neck exiled from Burma. Eark is from Chiang Mai, and is a warm, slightly camp man in his mid-thirties, with a smile that could light up nearby Burma. We had little hesitation in taking his suggestion, which he took delight in. It was a ‘why not’ decision – after all, why do we travel? In our case, it’s more than to just see the world, it’s to take as wide as experiences as we can, and learn about the lives of others. However, had we researched it before hand, I’m not sure that we would have made the excursion.
We turned off the main highway out of Chiang Rai, onto a bumpy road flanked by rolling green hills that would eventually lead to Tibet, or so Eark told us. Agricultural lands lay either side of us, as we juddered along. After a matter of minutes, we swung off the road into a clearing, a car park, big enough to hold a tourist bus or two. At the entrance to the village, we paid our 500 baht (about £10.00), and passed along a dusty path, lined with rickety market stalls bowing under the weight of rows of tourist tat, with brightly coloured scarves swaying in the breeze. A large party of Koreans were leaving, meaning that we were not the focus of half-hearted attempts by the women manning the stalls to peddle their wares. Unexpectedly, perhaps naively, we were in a tourist trap, but that felt OK because you can’t blame anyone for trying to eek out a living. We knew we were going on to the village, to interact with the Karen people. We carried on through the market, following the dusty path, to a very rickety bamboo bridge, where we crossed to the village. Eark casually remarked on the wicker litterbins, strewn along the path. He told us that the guides had been pressing the villagers to clear up the litter, thinking about the environmental benefits as well as aesthetics for the discerning visitor. Most of the rubbish looked tourist generated, to me, but I didn’t comment.
Across the bridge, we walked through another row of market stalls, this time seeing the women of the Karen tribe, who were sitting weaving at their looms. It was a startling sight. In my mind’s eye, I knew what to expect, a woman with her neck encased in brass rings, but seeing them as smiling, beguiling, workingwomen…. I was in awe, and noticed that I was standing, smiling back at the lady before me. Without fail, all of the women we encountered had a grace and elegance about them. They politely smiled, and bowed, in a kind of deference, but in their society, the women hold the respect. It was a really bewildering feeling.
Eark had told us that no one really knows why the wearing of coils had started, perhaps to fight off tigers in the jungles, but what remains from their tradition, and it is true of today, the woman with the longest neck has the greatest beauty. She can command a high price in marriage – for it is the men that pay the dowry. These women of great poise, with painted faces to make them more desirable, sit and weave. The brass rings are heavy, about five kilograms, and the illusion is of a long neck as the collarbones are depressed. The brass rings are heated and coiled, wound around the neck by a mother, or a sister. It is a ritual for women by women. This does not come without cost, as we witnessed in some of the photos that the women showed us, scars where the hot brass has burned their skin. They seemed to show us this with some pride, as I winced at the images. The necks are encased from the age of four or five, and for these women who wear them now, the process of coiling would be repeated often as the young girl grows, blossoming into a woman with a long neck. For the women of the Karen, the coils are changed every few years, as the brass cracks and deteriorates.
The long neck woman is becoming extinct, since the girls entering school are forbidden from wearing the brass rings. The Thai government seems concerned about potential exclusion and being victimised. Eark told us that this is the reason that he wanted us to make this excursion; who knows for how much longer we can see this tradition of the Karen tribe. Modern living means that traditions will dying in the tribe – but I understand why.
We photographed the women of the Karen tribe, with Eark telling us that one lady was as photographed as Angelina Jolie in Thailand! We posed with them, we bought some goods from them, with Eark encouraging us that it would benefit the women directly.
We were touched by these women, whose lives are so far removed from our own, but we were disappointed not to see the village or the way of life. The village was behind the screen of the market stalls, giving little of their lives away. We found it an extraordinary visit, but left with a feeling of some discomfort, because it was, after all contrived into a tourist showpiece. And like every such performance, there has to be a Ringmaster. It wasn’t clear to us who that might be, and Eark was not giving that away.
The women of the long neck tribe have been one of the enduring images that I have brought back, and since then, I’ve tried to understand more about them. There are articles a plomp calling the tourist villages a “human zoo”, and I appreciate that. It makes sense, but does it invalidate the experiences that I had, or make it a ‘bad’ thing to have done? Am I acting against my feminist beliefs in supporting the voyeuristic exploitation of these enchanting women? I’m not so sure. These women, traditionally, behold their own beauty, whatever the history of that, it remains true. Albeit through the translation of our guide, they seem proud of who they are, and perhaps even that they are facing extinction. At one level, and a very significant level, I feel privileged to have encountered these elegant, enchanting women, and I am very happy that we did make the excursion.
We travelled in February 2012, on a Bespoke Private Tour arranged with Cox & Kings. The visit to the Long Neck Tribe was an excursion from our stay in Chiang Rai.