Do Not Attempt This At Home…Or In Thailand – Long Neck Karen Village – Chiang Mai, Thailand


When we started on this trip, we made an agreement to be selective about the tourist activities that we would take part in. There are some activities out there that are extremely popular, but are unethical. Unfortunately it’s just a fact of life, particularly in countries where governments aren’t really inclined to intervene when tourist dollars are at stake. Tourists still have a choice though, and our choice is to not support these activities where possible.

Yes, we did partake in the mild exploitation of one water buffalo in Vietnam. Whoops. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best decision, but in our defense, it’s generally accepted that water buffalo can carry people with no risk of physical injury, and that one didn’t appear to mind. Did it mind? We will never know, but if it did, we’re sorry!

Chiang Mai is home to a few questionable tourist activities. For example, there’s no shortage of opportunities to ride an elephant. You can also cuddle with an adult tiger. We’ll pass. But yesterday, we might have let one slip through.

As part of our temple tour, we wanted to visit the Karen tribe, otherwise known as the long neck tribe. These are the people that you’ve probably seen in a National Geographic article. The women of the Karen tribe are known for wearing brass coils around their necks, which appear to lengthen the neck. Girls start to wear the coils when they are five years old, and over the years the coils are replaced with longer ones. The necks are not actually lengthened by this process; instead, the collar bone is pushed down and the rib caged is compressed. There are many theories as to why this tradition originated – the desire to look more attractive, to resemble a dragon (which is an important symbol in their culture), and to protect from tiger bites. When the women are asked about the rings, they acknowledge that they’re worn for cultural identity, and associated with beauty.

Of course we wanted to see the Karen tribe in real life, and were excited to learn that a small group was living close to Chiang Mai and was open to visitors. We weren’t sure how respectful it would be to show up and stare at these people, but Tong assured us that they like visitors because it’s a source of income for them. He did say that this group wasn’t native to Chiang Mai, but their tribe lives so far north that it made it more difficult for people to visit them, hence this local settlement. It made sense to us, so we agreed to still go.

Our visit with the Karen tribe was interesting, to say the least. It seems like it would be impossible for them to actually look like this, but they do! The women were very gracious and kind. And while they seemed to be happy that there were visitors, we felt just a bit uncomfortable. It helped immensely that we were with our guide who knew some of the women personally, which allowed us to engage with them. They were very cool about taking pictures with us. Still, something felt off. It felt like we were at a human zoo.

Looking back, we wish we would have done more research. We don’t think Tong intentionally misled us, but there’s a much deeper story behind why the tribe is there, and it doesn’t seem like they’re there by choice. Had we known what we know now, we wouldn’t have gone.

The Karen tribe fled to Thailand due to the civil war in Myanmar. Thailand classifies this tribe as economic migrants, which means they’re residents but not citizens, and they’re essentially confined to these tourist villages, which aren’t much more than a cluster of shacks. There are accounts of the women wanting to leave Thailand for New Zealand where they’ve been offered refuge. It’s said that the Thai government won’t allow them leave – most likely because they’re a unique and popular attraction for tourists. What is the real story? We’re not sure, but it just didn’t feel right. There’s the small consolation that by visiting the tribe, we were able to help support them. Christine bought a ring and a bracelet that were made by the women. But by visiting, we may have also supported them being held in a place against their desires. It’s a vicious circle.

Going along with our efforts to be responsible tourists, and simply because of our love for animals, we’re about to do something we’ve been planning for since the very beginning of this trip. We’re volunteering for a week at an elephant sanctuary north of Chiang Mai called the Elephant Nature Park. The ENP is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. They’ve rescued dozens of elephants from logging camps and tourist shows. Instead of being subjected to hooks and chains, these rescued elephants can now bond with other elephants and live freely, like a natural herd.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be living in the sanctuary. There’s no AC, and the temperatures are currently topping out at 107 degrees. We’ll be cutting up pounds and pounds of fruit, planting trees, building fences, and getting knee deep in elephant poo. And most importantly, we’ll be making friends with a bunch of elephants! We expect it to be a challenging week, but we think it just might be the highlight of this whole thing we’re doing.

The sanctuary is out in the hills and therefore has no internet, so we’re giving the blog a rest – see you in a week!