National Geographic magazine came alive in flesh and blood for me when I visited a Long Neck Karin village in northern Thailand. I felt like I was at a zoo, but a zoo of women – they were smiling and welcomed the other tourists and me. I had my camera hanging around my neck so it was pretty clear I qualified as a gawker!
I had to force myself to overcome a sense of awkwardness that came with looking at these women as oddities, and frankly, I was never really at ease. These were human beings, after all. But I had paid an entrance fee of $12 Canadian to wander through the village and take their pictures, so I just got on with it. Every traveller knows what wonders a heart-felt smile can bring. When I smiled at them, they smiled at me. Good enough!
During my tour of the village, I probably saw 15 women sitting on their front porches waiting for tourists to come. Many of them had their young daughters with them, although not all the young girls had coils around their necks. Entertaining tourists was how these women earned their daily bread. My entrance fee was collected by one of the women with the understanding that this money would be distributed among the members of the community to pay for clothing, food and school tuition for their children. I wanted to believe that was true. I only saw one man while I wandered through the village, and he was sitting in the background minding his own business. The women were front and centre.
All the women wore coils of brass tubing around their necks, and I’m not exactly sure why. Like everything else I’ll tell you here, I have no idea what the truth is. There is simply no reliable information to be had. I heard several stories to explain why the women wear them. One story says that these coils made the girls look ugly and therefore unattractive to slave traders. Another story says just the opposite – it makes the women more attractive and therefore better marriage material. Another story says that tigers only attacked the women at their necks, so the coils protected the women from tiger attacks. Others say that the original reason is lost to history and the practice continues today only to attract tourists! What I can tell you for sure is that all the Long Neck Karin women were universally attractive – or maybe only the attractive ones were out on display.
The women’s long necks are an optical illusion! Their necks are not long at all. If the coils actually stretched their necks, they would die. But they looked and acted quite healthy to me! Rather, these heavy brass coil rings shove the women’s collarbones down and create the appearance of a long neck. I heard that it is the custom for husbands to remove a few rings if their women are unfaithful. The women’s neck muscles completely atrophy after the coils have been around their neck for some time. If they take the coils off, their heads will drop to one side and they must lie down for the rest of their lives or they will die. Truth or fiction?
The term Karin refers to a type of hill tribe that came from either China or Burma (again, no certainty at all). Apparently the Karin people were oppressed in their home country and fled to Thailand. However, our guide told us that the Karin are not considered Thai citizens and don’t have land ownership rights, nor can they get passports. Interestingly, the various Karin communities don’t recognize any sense of belonging to a larger Karin people. Each community has a dialect that the other communities don’t understand.
Not all the young girls have coils on their necks. Some mothers are opting not to put their daughters through the torment of this bizarre custom and, instead, are allowing them to grow up normally. The only loss to these young girls is that they will never qualify as circus attractions.
One woman played a guitar for the tourists. I thought she was talented and an exception. Later, I learned that the Long Neck Karin women pride themselves on their musical talents. Another woman I met in the village offered to sell me a remarkably beautiful hand-woven scarf. I bought the scarf for the modest price of $4 Canadian, partly because I felt obliged to do a bit more than gawk and partly because I knew a woman back in Canada who would enjoy the scarf.
All in all, I would say that my one-hour visit was a delight. Anyone committed to seeing all that life has to offer should visit this hill tribe.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved