The Harsh Realities of Wearing Those Neck Rings – A Reflection from the Long Neck Karen Hilltribe

Everything You Need to Know About the Long Neck Karen Tribe Before You Go

When I first saw the photos of the Long Neck Karen Tribe in the Nat Geo Channel one day, I was one of the “curious ones” audiences. I wanted to see them on my own and ask questions like “How heavy it is? Are you still breathing well? Are you taking it off at night?” UNTIL I GET THERE and I REGRETTED being curious in the first place.

Walking to the Karen Hill Tribe Village, there is a silent awkwardness – feeling like I’m walking into a Human Zoo. Our Tourist Guide has shown photos of them how they sleep in sideways, how they enjoy their free time in the villages singing and dancing and even how they take a shower while wearing this ring on their neck. FYI: They only take them off when adding rings.

The Karen Hill Tribe is originally from Burma (Myanmar), they came to Thailand as “economic migrant” (not refugees) to escape the longtime conflict between the government and the people. Thailand Government has accepted them – without any real legal status – but for a SPECIAL PURPOSE. According to our Tour Guide, they are under the care of the Thailand Government for TOURISM in the north. 

The Realities of Wearing Those Neck Rings

The tourist trade is encouraging more girls to wear neck rings, which severely limits their freedom to live their lives the way that they want to. Furthermore, Thai authorities REFUSE to allow people to resettle outside tourist villages. They have very limited access to electricity, health care, education and roads. In the end, they aren’t a citizen in any country at all. Cruel world, isn’t it?

credit to: IG @jhaamendoza

The heavy neck rings weigh up to 25 pounds, it’s like carrying an average watermelon! The coils don’t actually stretch the neck out, but the weight of them depress the collar bones and shoulder blades causing permanent physical damage. If they take them off, their shoulder couldn’t be back to its normal length and it will be a long process of recovery to get use to not wearing them. 

After a point, the extensive damage is permanent and cannot be repaired. Our Tour Guide eexplained to us that the girls are started with the rings when they are 5 years of age. One year per year but at the age of 15, they are given the choice to continue wearing or take them off.  If they continue to wear them into adulthood, they are not supposed to be able to take them off – because their neck muscles won’t be strong enough to support their heads and their windpipes could collapse.

credit to: IG @jhaamendoza

In ancient times, they wear these rings to protect their neck by being attacked by the Tigers (since tigers attac directly to the neck) while the men from their village are hunting. Also, in the ancient Karen Hilltribe, the more rings they wear, they are more beautiful. But it’s 2019 – and there are teenagers inside that village, who adore Taylor Swift and couldn’t even make an eye contact to the people. Do they wear it UNTIL NOW because people think that they are beautiful? Or because of the tourist business? What would Taylor Swift says? Older women enjoy upholding the tradition but younger women is pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living – say, to stay alive in Thailand.

Should You Go?

They say an estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay 300 BAHT to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures.

credit to: IG @jhaamendoza

No one is to be blamed. Thai Government is fair enough to accept them for whatever purposes. I just hope that they will allow the young generations to get a proper education and health system. While some says Karen Hilltribe are paid for the opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.

Travel is about connecting relationships with people from different cultures. You can buy their product but it’s better to give the money to the Chief Village or directly to the women. 

Check your intentions. Do your research. The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about. 

Reflect and Appreciate. This trip will definitely change you and the way you look at your freedom. Do you appreciate a genuine smile and your choice of foods?

credit to: IG @dibersity

Any thought about this? Thanks a lot for dropping by. See you in Bangkok, next!

Love, Kate

13 thoughts on “The Harsh Realities of Wearing Those Neck Rings – A Reflection from the Long Neck Karen Hilltribe”

  1. Hi Kate. Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know the story behind wearing that ring. i cannot imagine wearing that now even as a tourist,. Tourists should be mindful about this harsh realities of the past and the present

  2. Very well said – reflect on your objectives on visiting this place. You did bring out the sad side of these people. And yes, it has made me ponder if we travelers are the reason for them to carry on a dangerous tradition like it. Thanks for writing both sides of the story and making people think.

  3. I’ve been to visit the Long Neck Karens. Sadly, they can’t really earn money for their families any other way than being a tourist attraction themselves. It is interesting to visit with them and try to understand why they continue with their young girls wearing the rings.

  4. Indeed suffering for beauty. But i really love the uniqueness of their customs and traditions.
    Hoping one day i could visit this full of fascinating culture .Anyway this is very impormative and catchy that brought me to read the whole blog. Thanks you ate katie. You are wonderful writer.

  5. “In ancient times, they wear these rings to protect their neck by being attacked by the Tigers” I had no idea this why is they started wearing the rings around the neck. Nowadays, this makes me really upset. Being exploited for the sake of tourist is so wrong. I had no idea that they were not allowed to relocate outside of their village.

  6. I really can’t imagine wearing a neck ring. Your post certainly shed light on the practice. How cruel to start this at age 5. And that they can’t really be removed because the neck is no longer strong enough to support the head. This is certainly a practice I would not support by visiting. But glad you did to bring more information to us.

  7. Hi Kate, thank you for sharing this experience and raising awareness of this issue. It is heartbreaking to think that young girls (why is it always the girls that have to do all the shitty things to profit their family? grrr) are still pressured to damage their bodies permanently just to earn a living as tourist attraction. I personally think visiting indigineous tribes of any sort is a very delicate issue. Where does intercultural exchange end and exploitation for entertainment purposes start. Great post!

  8. I too wondered – are they able to breathe! I am for preserving customs, but when they are painful ones like this I am in 2 minds. It is consoling and satisfying that they are able to ear some money from this.

  9. I watched this tribe on TV and i was fascinated, it has been on my list for awhile being curious like you, but its a very sad story that they keeping the traditions alive for the sake of tourism.

  10. This is such a tragic story. I can’t help to wonder what role men play in the story of the Karen Hilltribe women. I can understand keeping up the tradition if they were still living in their villages of origin but it seems like they’ve become freaks for tourists. Thanks for this informative post sharing the story behind the story.

  11. Urgh I hadn’t realised that this was basically a tourist attraction. The only time I’ve come across something similar is on the Uros Islands in Peru, where the government pays the people to keep up their traditional ways even though they would have died out naturally. We need to be more mindful of visiting places like this.

  12. I really appreciated your honest review of this culture and the conflict between the advantages of tourism and people being exploited for that purpose. I cannot believe how much the rings weigh, but I’m glad they at least allow the women to decide for themselves whether or not they will wear them.

  13. As much as this tradition makes their culture distinct and beautiful, I do agree that it hurts my heart that they have to endure the pain of it as they sped the rest of their lives. Thank you for sharing their story and for giving us these beautiful shots of them.

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