The Freak Show: Chiang Mai

No trip to Northern Thailand can be complete without the compulsory visit to a hill tribe or six.

I can count myself as privileged that upon my last visit to Thailand, rather than join a tour group to a much trodden village, I was able to receive an introduction to a little visited Shan people in their ramshackle, dusty village.

My visit was made as the result of involvement with an NGO who invest in village life, education and self-sustainance for Shan tribesmen.  The people are, in essence, countryless folk whose ancestral homelands lay across the malarial mountains in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).

My experience provided a great insight into such a rural way of life, their animist beliefs and the difficulties they have had in terms of assimilation into mainstream Thai society.

A long neck Karen (Paduang) woman, Chiang Mai district, Thailand

A long neck Karen (Padaung) woman, Chiang Mai district, Thailand

Therefore, my expectations of a trip to a long-neck Karen village which had been “relocated” conveniently near to the main road out of the tourist hub of Chiang Mai were somewhat limited.

This sub-group of the larger Karen tribe (also known by the Burmese name Padaung), fled across the Burma border to Thailand in the late 1980s when civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army intensified

There is much debate as to the merits and morality of visiting this particular tribe, being as they are one of only two ethnic groups (the other is in South Africa) to practice the forced elongation of necks.

On the one hand, mass tourism provides a guaranteed income for some of the poorest people on the planet.

On the other, the fact that most visitor intentions are not to understand the culture and way of life of the Karen, but purely to ogle at the decorative rings which cause the neck of the females to become elongated over time, creates what in essence is little more than a government patronised human zoo.

I must my hand up here, guilty as charged.

Ethical?  Meh.

Intriguing?  Damn right.

If there is ever an opportunity to see some giraffe necked women and I am in effect to be charged for the privilege of gawping at them, then yes sir, you can count me in.

I mean, let’s be honest, we all love a freak show don’t we?

Seeing people so different from what we perceive as being “normal” somehow reassures us as to the acceptability of our own personalised brand of human being.

It’s how we are programmed to rationalise things: I am not like them. I belong.

There is a certain comfort in this thinking.

The female Karen as it happens, are a particularly attractive race of women (the faux nature of the “village” ensured I did not encounter any males – I guess there was no point to this as the Thai Government must have assumed – there is no Baht in average necked blokes) and I say this not because of a fetish for diplodocus-like ladies, but as a general observation of their facial beauty.

Young Padaung.  Karen long neck

Be mindful of the force young Padaung. Of course, there are no light sabres in the vicinity because it's "Padaung", not "Padawan", Comprende?

As young girls they start to wear the neck rings and over the years add extra layers in order to forcibly stretch the neck to its atypical dimensions.

It is said that to remove the rings in adulthood would be to risk the collapse of the vertebrae of the neck and therefore cause disablement or even death.

Such an outcome is harsh, but I don’t see this as such a big deal as the 0.5 threatens me with the same whenever I go out for the evening and forget to wear my wedding ring.

I say it should be considered an occupational hazard.

Anyway, of all the places we’ve visited and all the peoples we’ve encountered, the Karen were by far and away the least engaging.

long neck karen and boy

"Dad, about this necklace? Where's it all leading, eh?"

Most of the tribeswomen appeared sullen and disinterested in our presence, remaining in the shadows and never flashing a smile.

The boy was hardly given the time of day except by one mother and daughter who welcomed him into a photo (he was the only one I witnessed receiving such an invite, so that speaks volumes in itself).

I guess if your job is to sit around all day whilst people stick their cameras in your face, then you aren’t necessarily going to be overly welcoming to the 4pm tour group.

long neck karen woman, longest neck, most rings

All hail Ringus Maximus and her several kilo load! "If you wanna be a record breaker....woooooh"

But hey, following relocation, this tribal group are now professionals and I say they should quite literally act like professionals and at least pretend to enjoy the presence of tourists.

If they are (as I assume) receiving a cut from the tour organisers, then it should be a win-win situation.  So why not smile, step into the light and make this freak show one to remember?

I dunno, maybe this human circus needs to die a death?  There was after all something, just, well, slightly wrong about it.

For now though, the show is alive and kicking and frankly, I expect a bigger bang for my buck than what I got.

OK, so maybe this isn’t the politically correct way of looking at things, but in the harsh modern world of globalized demand that they have now signed up to, they could do a lot worse than heed my advice if they wish to thrive as a people.

Get an agent.

Roger and out.


About misterkelvin

I searched, I failed. And then I accidentally found one in Ubud.
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