Long Neck Karen

Thailand's beautiful hill tribe women in Mae Hong Son

In Mae Hong Son, there are two villages where Thailand's famous long neck women from the Karen hill tribe live. We visit the long neck women from time to time. Below you will find some information and photos from our visits.

This article covers the following topics:

About the Long Neck Karen

The long neck women belong to the Kayan Lawhi hill tribe, which is a sub-group of Red Karen. The people are also called Padaung. But they prefer the name Kayan.

These hill tribes originally come from Myanmar (Burma). They had to flee to Thailand from their own country due to conflict with the military regime in Myanmar.

Why do these women wear these rings?

The woman themselves mention that the reason for wearing these rings is cultural identity, where beauty plays an essential role.

Therefore, we particularly want to focus in this article on the unusual and beautiful aspects of the long-necked women.

History and background

The historical background for wearing this extraordinary necklace is not very clear. Various stories exist about the historical origin of this necklace. The reasons given are, for example, that the women wanted to protect themselves from tiger bites or abductions and kidnappings by other tribes.

There is even the myth that the Padaung are descended from a female dragon with an armored neck. According to this myth, this female dragon transformed into a beautiful young woman and, together with a hybrid being who was half man and half angel, had two children. For this reason, the ladies of the Padaung tribe would continue to wear "neck armor".

Perhaps the craziest story is that men consciously put these rings on the women to weaken their neck muscles. Therefore, the women could be punished in case of possible adultery simply by removing the rings. With no rings, they would have suffered a broken neck due to the weakened musculature.

The rings are a spiral

It cannot be said with certainty which story is correct. However, what can be said with certainty is that the necklace is not made up of individual rings. This particular necklace consists of a one-piece element that is placed around the woman's neck in the form of a spiral. It is correct that girls start to wear rings when they are about five years old. But it is wrong that the young women are put on a new ring every year. The rings are removed from time to time and replaced by a new, possibly bigger spiral. If a woman takes off the rings, it is usually not for a long time. Without rings, the skin often shows marks and bruises and can be pale in color. 

The weight of the rings

As mentioned, this necklace is not made up of single rings but of a spiral. The raw material of the spirals is brass. In earlier times, the Kaya have even used alloys of gold, silver, or copper to make the spirals.

Even though the specific weight of brass is less than that of more precious metals such as gold or silver, the weight of the rings can still be as much as 10 kilograms! Moreover, many of the women of the Kayan wear additional rings on their legs and arms. These other rings can also weigh 15 to 20 kilograms. Therefore, a lady may carry pieces of jewelry of up to 30 kg on herself.

Long neck village in Mae Hong Son

A visit to a long neck village in Mae Hong Son will give you an insight into a completely different culture.

After fleeing Myanmar, the hill tribe became settled along the Burmese border. With Huay Pu Keng and Huai Seau Tao, there are two longneck villages in Mae Hong Son. It is possible to visit both communities.

Huay Pu Keng on the Pai River

In Huay Pu Keng lives the largest community of Kayan. This village is located on the Pai River, the river that flows from Pai to Myanmar, where it joins the Salaween River. The village can only be reached by boat. The trip with the longtail boat leads through the mountain rainforest and is very impressive.

You can book a tour in Mae Hong Son with a tour operator. But you can also drive yourself to the Huai Dua Tourist Port, which is located about 7,5 kilometers south of the city center. At this pier, it is possible to book a boat for the return trip by oneself. In the following map, you will see the location of the Huai Dua Tourist Port:

Click here to open the map in a new tab.

Huay Pu Keng is located about 7 kilometers downstream. The outward trip is faster than the return trip, where the boat has to go against the current.

Huai Seau Tao

The smaller village Huai Seau Tao was built in 1995. You can reach this community by car, motorcycle, or bicycle. But you can also take a tuk-tuk in the city center of Mae Hong Son. The village is accessible via a narrow and winding mountain road. The unique thing about this road is that two streams are crossed, which flow over the street. Therefore, it is not possible to drive to Haui Seau Tao during heavy rainfall.

The village itself consists only of one street, which reminds of a market, where different souvenirs are sold. Many of the souvenirs are handmade by the people themselves. In the following map, you will see where Huai Seau Tao is located:

Click here to open the map in a new tab.

Entrance fee

Tourists have to pay an entrance fee of 250 Baht for visiting each of the two villages. You can buy a ticket near the entrance to the village.

An information sheet is handed out to the tourists with the ticket, where it is stated that this entrance fee has nothing to do with the exploitation of the inhabitants. The entrance fee is, for example, to cover the costs of infrastructure and school lessons.

The people themselves can best be supported by buying handmade souvenirs. After all, they are also lovely souvenirs of an unforgettable trip to the north of Thailand.

Controversy about the long neck women as a tourist attraction

On the internet, you can find articles that are against a visit to long neck women's villages. The authors of these articles criticize that the people are exposed and misused as a tourist attraction.

In Thailand, there are eight villages. Further villages are located in northern Thailand in the provinces Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. One village has been set up in  Pattaya, on the eastern Gulf Coast.

During all our visits to the villages of the long neck women, we have been able to make some great friendships. We know that some tourists have already made friendships with long-necked women. These friendships are being kept through messaging services such as Facebook, Whatsapp, or Line.

We believe that a village of the Kayan Lawhi, a subgroup of the red Karen, can be visited. However, it should be a matter of respect to ask for permission before taking pictures. Most of the women speak Thai, and especially the younger ones speak English as well.

About the authors:

Karnsiree Chimsuk & Marco Steuri

We are the owners of Mae Hong Son Hostel. We love to travel around Thailand and discover places in other countries.

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