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Hill Tribes in Thailand – Long Neck Karen Women (Mae Hong Son)

Long Neck Karen Woman (Kayan Village, Mae Hong Son)

Long Neck Karen Woman (Kayan Village, Mae Hong Son)

Finally, I managed to meet the long necked women in Mae Hong Son province, northern Thailand. I can vividly remember the first time I saw an image of a long neck Karen woman when I attended a themed exhibition titled” Endurance Beauty” at Muzium Negara, National Museum of Kulau Lumpur in Malaysia many years ago. The exhibition celebrated the diversity of tribal peoples and their traditions and culture and the wild beauty of their homelands. Importantly, what is beauty through the eyes of tribal peoples and Mae Hong Son has become my secret dream destination for many years.

Boat Jetty at Ban Huay Dua (Mae Hong Song)

Boat Jetty at Ban Huay Dua (Mae Hong Song)

Pai River (Mae Hong Son, Thailand)

A journey of discovery (River Pai, Mae Hong Song)

A journey of discovery (River Pai, Mae Hong Song)

So far, there is a lot of controversy about their conditions of living and people have written lots of reviews about visiting long neck villages in northern Thailand. Some felt like visiting a “human zoo“. As a photographer, photography offers me an opportunity to see things differently from a different angle. Furthermore, I am interested in ethnobotany, the study of tribal people and their plant medicines, documentary photography and photojournalism and I hope that my photos will speak for themselves.I am here not just taking photos of people but to document the things that I see through art of photography. Living in a fragile world, things are disappearing fast. I remembered seeing lots of Akha women in beautiful native headdress and costumes in the past but now, time has changed. I had to search for them on motorbike in Chiang Rai province last year.

Snaking through river Pai (Mae Hong Son)

Snaking through river Pai (Mae Hong Son)

Long Neck Village along Pai riverbank (Mae Hong Son)

Welcome To Long Neck Village (Kayan) (Mae Hong Son)

Welcome To Long Neck Village (Kayan) (Mae Hong Son)

The long neck village (Kayan) that I visited is nestled along the river bank of Pai surrounded by lush forest and mountain ranges . The village (Baan Hui Poo Kaeng) is easily accessed by road and water transportation. We rented a long-tailed boat (600 THB) from Ban Huay Dua in Mae Hong Son province. It takes you on a journey of discovery into the world of Mother Nature in just 25 minutes where you can find gigantic fig trees, bamboo forest, waterfowls foraging for food along the riverbank etc. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a blue wooden signboard “Long Neck Village (Kayan)” and trays of chilli peppers being dried under the sun. Spices and herbs play an important role in Kayan cooking. Free for the locals but a foreigner like me has to pay 250 THB for entrance to the village.

Cassie Tree (Baan Hui Poo Kaeng, Mae Hong Song)

Cassie Tree (Long Neck Village, Mae Hong Song)

The children peeked shyly at the visitors from the balcony of their wooden stilted home

Long neck Karen woman demostrating the art of Kayan weaving (Mae Hong Son)

Long neck Karen woman demostrating the art of Kayan weaving (Mae Hong Son)

When I arrived at the village of the Kayan ( Baan Hui Poo Kaeng) in the late afternoon, the long necked Karen women wearing colourful head gear were either selling souvenirs or demostrating the art of traditional Kayan weaving to tourists. They are pretty friendly and willing to pose a photo upon requst. The children peeked shyly at the visitors from the balcony of their wooden stilted home. As a tradition, Kayan people place beehives in front of their wooden houses to ensure good luck.

Tourist possing photo with Long Neck Karen woman (Mae Hong Son)

Tourist possing photo with Long Neck Karen woman (Mae Hong Son)

Handcrafted souvenirs from Kayan village (Mae Hong Son)

Textiles weaved by the long neck Karen women (Mae Hong Son)

Textiles weaved by the long neck Karen women (Mae Hong Son)

Kayan tribe girls started wearing brass rings around their necks, as well as rings on the forearms and legs, at age of five or six years. Normally, a Kayan woman carries 5 kg of brass coils around the neck. In the past, it made the women looked more attractive or simply preventing the women from getting bitten by tigers. In recent years, younger women have started removing the coils. Presently, there are 247 Kayan nationals residing in the village.

Kayan tribe girls started wearing the brass coils at the age of five (Mae Hong Son)

Kayan tribe girls started wearing the brass coils at the age of five (Mae Hong Son)

FYI, the Long Neck Karen (Kayan) are a Burmese tribe who reside in Thailand on refugee status. They cannot travel out of their designated area, and must stay in the provincial managed locations unless they had permission from their District Office.

Snacks – Kai Ping (Grilled eggs) (Kayan village, Mae Hong Son)

Snacks - Kai Ping (Grilled eggs) (Kayan village, Mae Hong Son)

Homemade liquor recipe (Long Neck Village, Mae Hong Son)

Chilli - Spice of Life (Kayan Village, Mae Hong Son)

Chilli – Spice of Life (Kayan Village, Mae Hong Son)

It is an eye opening experience to witness the Kayan culture, lifestyle and traditions. As a token of appreciation , I bought a Kayan brass bangle for 100 THB from one of the stalls. Perhaps, beauty does truly lies in the eye of the beholder.

Long neck Karen woman in her daily routine (Kayan village, Mae Hong Son)

Long neck Karen woman in her daily routine at Baan Hui Poo Kaeng (Kayan village, Mae Hong Son)

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Stock photography by Eugene Tang at Alamy