Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Visiting the Long Neck Tribe

These girls have worn neck rings for just a few years. More will be added as they get older.
My daughter lives such a different life than them.

I remember sitting in my suburban Texas home when I was a little girl and reading about the Long Neck Tribes in the remote jungles of Asia. Looking at the explorer journal sketches of women with rings going up their impossibly tall, giraffe-like necks, these people seemed no more real than the inhabitants of Tatooine, Narnia or Middle Earth -- maybe even less so. They were so far removed from my life in the land of cowboys and astronauts. I certainly never thought that I'd one day encounter them face to face.

Baan Tong Luang is an eco-agricultural hill tribes village just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was created in 2005 as a cultural preservation project, tourist attraction, and a way to create income for the hill tribes, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar. Seven distinct tribes are located here including the Padaung people, also called the Kayan Lahwi, a subgroup of the Karen tribe and famous for their women with long, ringed necks. 

Uncurling the rings of the Padaung women

At first, I was hesitant to visit. What if I was contributing to the perpetuation of an outdated custom maintained merely to separate tourists from their money? I wondered if it would feel like a Human Zoo. But then I decided that I never question visits to Australian Aboriginal Cultural Centers, Colonial Williamsburg or other living history museums. Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that these tribes kept their traditions alive out of pride and wanted to share them with the world.

Brass rings encircle her neck, wrists, and legs
Does she long to remove them or is it an integral part of her cultural identity?
Does she wish people would see past the rings to the individual inside them?

I'm so glad that I went. I got to talking with one of the Padaung women, thrilled by how well she spoke English as my Tibeto-Burman language comprehension is quite poor. After chatting with her, I no longer felt like a mere voyeur but instead like someone who heard her story and carried it out to the world. We asked her what it felt like to wear those rings. "Heavy and hot," was her answer. "But it is better here," she said. "When I worked in the fields in Burma, they were so hot. It was hard to work. Here, I can weave and sit in the shade." She unfurled some of her handiwork. Each one takes 3 days to weave and are priced at only US$5. After listening to her story, I didn't  have the heart to haggle. Like most girls, she started wearing the rings when she was about 4 or 5 years old, beginning with just a few. Now, she has 25 rings. (The rings do not actually stretch their necks but squash their vertebrae and collarbone so it angles downwards, giving the illusion of a longer neck.) In this woman's case, she did not start wearing rings just to draw tourist dollars. Perhaps this village did indeed provide her with a better, easier life after fleeing the turmoil in her homelands seven years ago. She also mentioned that she cannot leave Thailand because she has no passport.

Weaving is better than fieldwork.
Her white shirt signifies that she's unmarried.

One of the tables held postcards of a young Padaung lady dressed in modern clothes. With her hair flowing loosely down her back and a contemporary jacket, the neck rings took on the look of a bold, statement necklace. It's a look that the fashion world would approve of.

This perfume ad with Charlize Theron in the in-flight magazine
definitely reminded me of the Padaung women.

This village is not just some place for their day job catering to tourists. They live here, too. Rice paddies line the walk in the middle of the village while water buffalo graze off to the side.

Top: Livestock of water buffaloes and roosters
Middle: Rice paddies
Bottom: Houses on stilts and their makeshift sink comprised of a hose and bucket

A small one-room schoolhouse provides the children with a few hours of education each day, more on weekends. I noticed that working age men and older children were missing. Perhaps they go out and earn other income during the day.

A Community Education Development teacher from outside the tribe comes by to teach them Thai, English and Burmese.

Surprisingly, the village path ends in a Catholic church at the top of the hill. While the hill tribes were originally animists, many are converting to Christianity after meeting missionaries.

St. Nicholas Church at the end of the village

Other northern Thai hill tribes live in this village as well. For the most part, it's a big market selling goods that the villagers make along with outside handiwork. No guided tour, lectures, or performances are part of the experience. Since admission is 500 Thai baht, they don't do high pressure selling or charge you for photos. Haggling is acceptable, although my husband teased me about how horrendous I am at it.

Another branch of the Karen tribe who do not adorn their necks with rings are at the front of the village. Originally from Tibet, they moved into China and then Myanmar (Burma). In the last few decades, political turmoil caused them to take refuge in northern Thailand.

Karen woman weaving on her backstrap loom.
Married women wear bold colored shirts.

The Kayaw are another subgroup of the Karen tribe. Like the long necked Padaung subgroup, their legs are also encircled with brass. However, their necks are adorned with loose necklaces instead of confining rings.

Kayaw girl reads while mom weaves.

Kayaw section of the eco-agricultural village

The Lahu Shi Bala is another tribe that originated in Tibet and moved down to China, then Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Their women insert big metal earrings into their earlobes. My kids really enjoyed trying out the handmade cross-bows with the elder males of this tribe.

Lahu Shi Bala grandmother tending to the baby in the hammock.

Lahu Shi Bala man demonstrates an instrument made out of a gourd with bamboo pipes emerging from it.

The Palong tribe is a minority tribe that immigrated from Myanmar to Thailand in the mid-1980's. When I first approached the children, they were happily playing. As soon as one girl saw my camera, she called the others to sit down and pose.

Palong children

Palong woman selling hats and elephant bullhooks

The Mien or Yao people are from central China but have been in Thailand for about 150 years. "Yao" means "not under the power of anyone." This was the only tribe I saw doing needlework and batik.

Top: Mein woman doing needlework; Hot coals keep the batik wax liquid
Bottom: Batik tool for applying wax to cloth. Those evenly spaced lines are drawn by freehand.

  • Baan Tong Luang  Eco-Agricultural Village is located off Maerim-Samuang Road, about 35 minutes from the old walled section of Chiang Mai.
  • In some ways, this place is merely a large marketplace. Turn it into a deeper experience by taking time to talk with the villagers. They want to share their stories. Feel free to take photographs.
  • Allow 1-1.5 hours for your visit, depending on how much time you spend talking.
  • Bring drinking water.
  • Admission is 500 baht for adults and 300 baht for children
  • Pair this visit with excursions to other area attractions: Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Mae Sa Waterfall (a favorite among locals for picnicking and cooling off), or one of the many nearby animal encounters (Mae Sa Elephant Camp, Tiger Kingdom, Monkey School, or Siam Insect Zoo).

Related Post:
Dirty, Hungry Elephants
Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market
Chiang Mai Sunday Market
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Pret-a-Vivre, and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Very interesting post! I love learning about the different tribes :-)

  2. Beautiful set of photos and an eye opening post. I can't imagine wearing neck rings - leg adornments maybe but in their climate?? Do they ever take them off? What a fascinating place for your kids to visit and interested to hear that you could have an English conversation.

    1. No, they never take them off. I tried on a set of half-rings they have for tourists to wear for pictures, and even those were heavy.

  3. I wonder at the health implications of squashing vertebrae. I think this practice started to discourage other tribes from stealing the women? How much better it would be to be weaving in the shade than working in the fields. I can imagine how sweat must irritate the skin beneath. Great post.

  4. How fascinating!! I would never have imagined that people would still be doing the long neck with rings thing. Thanks for this thoughtful and very informative post - really enjoyed it!

  5. A fascinating post Michele. It's great to know the history behind these tribes. I've often wondered why women wear the adornmemts that they do. The Lahu Shi Bala woman reminded me of the Masaii women from Kenya with their holes in their lobes.

  6. Very interesting post, Michele, and very sensitive. In situations like these, I always wonder if I'm intruding, if I'm engaging in voyeurism. I'm glad you were able to speak to that woman, it really humanizes the experience.
    It's hard for me to imagine wearing anything on my neck especially when the weather is hot but I guess after a while, they get used to it. I'm sorry if I missed this, but how do they get them on?
    It's always fascinating to see what the standard of beauty is around the world, especially with people who have a long history.

    1. The women are actually wearing a brass coil, not rings. The 3rd photo shows the coil by itself as well as an unwound version of it. I don't even wear my wedding ring because it bothers me in the heat and humidity. I have no idea how they endure it. Perhaps the tradition started centuries ago back when the tribe was still located in colder Tibet.

  7. Hi Michelle, thanks for an interesting post. It's great to learn about the different tribes and where they came from. I was touched with your encounter with the Paduang woman and the story she had to tell.

  8. I have visited, and came away with mixed feelings. I think I was like you, I stopped and talked to a lot of the women. I wanted to know more about them, their families and cultures. What did disturb me the day I was there was the number of visitors who just walked up to the woman and girls snapped photos with them and walked away without saying a single word. I thought that was really strange, and it happened more than once. I see that a lot of the same folks are still there several years after my visit. I hope you are enjoying Chiang Mai!

    1. I was wondering if you had visited here and what you thought. I wonder if many people just assume there is a language barrier and don't even try to communicate with them. I"ll admit that I was hesitant to chat first and started when I overheard someone else talking with them.

  9. Its very interesting learning about other cultures. Thanks for sharing this insightful post.

  10. You know I've seen that perfume add a 100 times and have visited the long necks and never thought to put the two together. You're right!

  11. What a fascinating post, Michele! I remember seeing the long neck women featured in NatGeo magazines long ago too. They have led such interesting lives along with all these tribes you encountered. It's such a great way for the kids to see these other cultures. Despite being living exhibits here, I'm glad they look content and seem to have a better life. Good for you for chatting with them and learning more about them.

  12. This is a fascinating article. It's always beautiful to get an insight into how other people live their lives, and how different it can be from ours.

  13. It is really interesting to know how the illusion works. I assumed it stretched the neck, so I am glad you told me differently. What an interesting article all around.

  14. Great post and photos, thank you so much for sharing them at our party. When I lived in Vietnam eons :) ago, we had tribal minority people in Dalat and women with stretched ear lobs and long neck as well. My Twin just came back from Chiang Mai, I keep wondering if you might have crossed paths without knowing :).


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