In search of the Long-Necked Karen

Picture of Long-Necked Karen by Victoria Pernik

It didn’t take me long to realise that searching for the Long-Necked Karen people of Thailand – otherwise known as the Pa-Daung or, more correctly, the Kayan – was something of a pointless thing to do.

The simple reason is that the Kayan are not actually native to Thailand – a fact that is unfortunately lost on many tourists that go in search of this particular tribe because of the distinctive appearance of their women, who wear brass rings around their neck. These rings, which are worn from the age of seven, do not actually make the neck longer. They simply crush the collar bones, so as to make the neck appear longer.

The Kayan actually native to Burma, not Thailand. They are located in Shan state, which for the past two decades has been at war with the Burmese government. In a bid to stamp out any call for independence, the Burmese government has repressed the ethnic groups located in this region, causing many to flee across the border.

Despite the fact that the Kayan are almost entirely Burmese, tour companies have been quick to offer tours to see their “native” villages located in Thailand. The first thing that set alarm bells ringing was when I noticed that all tour companies seemed to be charging a minimum of 300 baht (about €7.50) just for setting foot inside the Pa-Daung villages. It is with some justification that such villages have been labelled “human zoos”.

To find out more, I tracked down Alberto de la Paz, the currator of the Hills Tribe museum in Chiang Rai. He was very scathing of tour operators who run trips to Pa-Daung villages, claiming that these people – refugees from war and repression in their native homeland – have simply been brought here for the benefit of tourists.

Since they are not Thai citizens, they have no right to work and are simply at the mercy of the tour companies who run the villages. They are paid a pitiful amount each day, so that they can be gawped at by tourists. Since only the women wear the brass rings, the men are of little interest to the companies. Some of the men that are seen tilling the fields are not even Long-Necked Karen, and those that have been brought over with the women are paid extremely poorly.

Worse, the creation of these villages is perpetuating a custom that, in many areas, had been dying out. Some Kayan groups had started to end the practice of wearing the rings. But, since it is these rings that make them so valuable, they have been encouraged to ressurect this custom.

De la Paz described the Kayan as the “photo girls” of a problem that persists throughout Thailand: only a fraction of refugees that pour over the border from Burma find themselves in refugee camps. The rest end up working in factories or on farms for a pittance. All along the Burmese border, there are factories that recruit almost exclusively Burmese refugees, because owners can pay them so little. Such workers have no rights, and are therefore frequently subject to abusive working conditions and payment.

I decided not to visit a Long-Necked Karen village whilst in Thailand. Although it would have been interesting to see how these women are being treated, I didn’t want to support such an abusive industry.

I had two main concerns about visiting such a village. Firstly, it seemed slightly ridiculous to visit a hill tribe that wasn’t even from the country. Secondly, I didn’t want to part with money that would have largely gone to wealthy tour operators rather than the community. Kayan villages are worth an absolute fortune and tour operators are rich enough without me adding to their pile.

Tour operators that I tried to speak to were dismissive about how much money actually goes to the Long-Necked Karen, but reports that I read suggested they were given only a very basic food allowance (perhaps no more than a hundred baht a day). This should be seen in light of the fact that tour operators are earning thousands and thousands of baht each day. Bus loads of tourists pull up outside the village throughout the day, with each visitor being charged between 300 and 500 baht to enter. It’s not difficult to see that owning a village of Long-Necked Karen is likely to make you very wealthy indeed.

Moreover, many tour operators seem to have a worryingly poor understanding of the tribe that they are lining up visits to. The leaflet of one tour operator – 7 tribes village – claims that the rings make the necks of the women longer. But, as noted above, this is not correct: their purpose is to crush the collar bones. When tour companies are happy to give such inaccurate information, one has to ask: why go with them at all?

There is a dilema, of course. Although the Long-Necked Karen are paid so poorly, compared to what the tour operators are actually making, they may actually be better off than they would be in Burma. And, since they are here, they do need to find a way to sustain themselves. Thus, even though most of the money goes to tour operators, they do depend on the little that filters down to them.

The solution is simple – put pressure on tour operators to give them a fairer deal, and on the Thai government to afford them better rights.

And, if you ever are interested in visiting this particular tribe, you too can do your bit. Before you go, do your research on the tour operator you want to go with. Ask them frankly how much money is going to go back into into the community. And, if he doesn’t give you a satisfactory answer or is shy about responding at all, I’d urge you not to go with them at all.

Only with this kind of pressure will conditions change in these human zoos.

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One Response to “In search of the Long-Necked Karen”

  1. Peter Ole Kvint Says:

    Ha, Ha, you underestimate women. They went on strike in 2006 and got paid to wear neck rings. Around 2009 they threatened to emigrate to Cambodia and all of Karen tribes in Thailand got a work permit. You do not guess what happened after the women have begun to interfere in warfare.

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