Some places one visits during their travels can be controversial. There is never one truth, therefore never one answer.
For me, going to visit the Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe was one such question I wanted an answer to. I had read different articles about whether or not it was ethical to visit them, but I found that my answer came from directly asking members of the tribe themselves.
The Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe are refugees formerly from Myanmar, leaving due to political unrest in their country. Fleeing to Thailand, most have began to rebuild their lives in the north, near Chiang Mai.
Now, they live in small shacks pushed together to make a village. Thailand allows them to reside near their cities, even if they have an illegal status, because many tourists are curious about them and tour groups can make money off of their existence.
This is the problem, exploitation. It is no secret that tour groups gain money off of them, but what does the Karen Tribe gain? Are we treating them like a human zoo?
This was my biggest worry, but after talking to a Karen Hill Tribe man, he said that the Karen people want tourists to come visit them because it’s their only source of income. Due to their refugee status, many cannot leave the villages, with some exceptions made for men with a legal status. The exception I noticed was that the elephant sanctuary I visited was ran by Karen Hill Tribe men.
The Karen Hill Tribe is most known for their women who wear long brass rings around their necks to elongate them, hence their full name of Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe. Having long beautiful necks are a beauty standard for them and female children will start wearing them from as young as four or five.
The brass rings themselves are very heavy, pushing down the collar bone and creating a longer neck. However, after years of use, many older woman cannot take the rings off because their necks have been weakened by it.
Not all women wear the rings, just those who wish to keep the tradition alive. Nobody is forced to wear them, as there is a deep sense of community and love amongst them.
During my visit, I was careful to be respectful and didn’t want to take pictures because I didn’t want to offend them. However, I quickly realized that the women wanted to take pictures with us and wanted to talk to us because they wanted to spread awareness of their existence.
Each house has a porch in front with goods spread out for sale. Some are not made by them and were obviously made by the Thai tourist industry for tourists to buy. Although I never felt forced to buy anything, I bought a few of these anyways, as they were beautiful and the warm smiles of the women were very compelling. Additionally I also bought goods actually made by the Karen women, such as their twisted brass rings that resembled their neck rings.
Going from house to house, I was welcomed by each with a warm smile and an excitement to show us their culture. They joked with us and the children wanted to play with us, even if there was a bit of a language barrier at times.
An important note – although being a tourist and observing their way of life may seem like you’re disrespecting them, they see it as a way of bettering their future and sharing their culture with the world. From the money they gain from tourists, along with donation boxes set up in front of the small school they have, they work to make their children educated and strive for better health amongst their people.
However, not all situations are the same and research before hand is always a good tool.