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Mae Hong Son – Karen Village

March 15, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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Nestled among the hills along the Pai river in the small town of Mae Hong Son rests the Kayan Village, a small village where the fascinating long neck women of Thailand reside. The Kayan Village people are actually a Burmese tribe who reside in Thailand near the boarder of Burma on a refuge status. Fascinated by these women, Tyler and I decided to take a visit to this special place where we would have the chance to meet and interact with them ourselves.

After years of seeing pictures and reading stories about the long neck women in Thailand, this little village was a destination we just could not resist taking a visit to before leaving the northern area. While there are many tours offering to take people on a bus ride only a few hours from Chiang Mai to visit similar long neck women in the mountains, we knew that was not the way we wanted to go. Some say the tours make it seem as if you are visiting a human zoo, and others say the women who are seen on the tours are not really apart of this tribe and the rings around their necks are detachable, just a show for tourism. So after some in depth research we decided the best way to visit and learn about the real tribal women is to go to the village where they actually live and interact with them.

After a short flight over an extension of the Himalayan Mountain Range, we took a tuk tuk ride to the small boat dock on the Pai river a few miles outside of the town. I failed to mention these tuk tuk’s in my writing of Chiang Mai, but they are the Thailand form of a taxi. Around the size of a golf cart, alike with no windows or doors, but differ with the engine of a motorcycle. These tuk tuk’s will take you anywhere you want to go for usually a very small fee. So with that being said, with no subways or busses, this has been our main form of transportation around Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. Anyway, after the tuk tuk ride to the boat dock we then rented a long tail boat to take us down down the river and across to the village. The ride along the Pai river was stunning with the picturesque giant fig trees and bamboo forests alining both sides of the river. We even spotted an elephant walking along side the bank.

As we arrived at Kayan Village we were a bottle of mixed emotions. Excited to talk with the people, but saddened by their living condition. The small worn down stilted huts were far worse than I had imagined. After a few minutes spent taking it all in we left the boat to make our way up the hill toward the small sign Kayan Long Neck Village. We continued past walking along the dirt path laid before us, and began to see these long neck women appear before us dressed in brightly colored attire with several brass rings around each of their necks, arms, and legs. All of the women in the village were very welcoming to visitors in hopes of selling their homemade goods, but besides Tyler and I there weren’t any other visitors in sight. Some of the women would come out of their homes to visit or try to sell one of their self knit scarfs, others would continue weaving together the elephant grass as a roof for their home.

The further we continued down the path we began to see children coming from a building at the end of pathway in the village. Getting a little closer we realized the building was a school and it was around lunch time, so the children were all running home to eat. As they ran past we saw some of the little girls that had just began to wear the brass rings around their neck.

The prominent tradition of winding one of these brass coils around the neck begins at the age of five. In the beginning only women who were born on a Wednesday with a full moon were to wear the rings, but later it became a tradition that all the women in the tribe wear them. The rings also used to be gold, but nowadays they are brass. Seeing as they are solid brass, it takes technique and skill for the women to place them on their necks. The brass must first be dipped into lemonade to soften and then it is rolled into a coil up and around their neck. A Kayan woman will carry around eleven pounds of the brass coils around their necks alone.

It has been said that the Kayan women wear the brass rings for prominence, beauty, and class. They also wear them as a marriage to the tribe. However, there are two beliefs as to why this tradition was originated. The first is that it originated from their Buddhist beliefs that the ghost and soul felt dissatisfied so a tiger was sent to bite all of the women’s necks. The ancestors were worried to loose all of the women in their tribe and created this solution to prevent this from happening. The second belief is that the parents of this tribe were a dragon and a swan, so in order to be suitable to their heirs the rings are worn to give them long necks.

After spending time talking to the women and children we left the village once again by boat. As much as their was to talk about from what we had just experienced, we sat in silence. Glad to have had the opportunity to visit this tribe we also hurt for them and their poor living conditions. But to see the beauty of these women and interact with them was a special moment which we can carry with us for many years to come.

Sawasdee Ka,

T + C

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