Saturday, December 8, 2012

Portraits of the Long Necked Karen

The Karen people from the Kayan state in Burma make up to 7% of the overall population in modern day Myanmar. Women of the Kariang กะเหรี่ยง sub group are known for wearing brass coils around their necks. They are also known as the Padung, Kayan, or Long Neck Karen.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme


 The total population of all  Karen people in Thailand number around 400,000. There are a couple of thousand registered "Kariang" villages.  Of those, there are only a hand full of Long Neck variety and those villages are scattered widely along the border.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

Girls first start to wear rings when they are very young. Over the years as the child grows the coils are replaced and refitted accordingly as they mature.


Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. These coils give the impression that the arms are longer and the neck has been elongated. If this were true it would mean instant death to the bearer of the coil. The brass ring is seldom removed. After many years, the coils become a natural part of their body as well as a source of beauty. You can see that the women take great pride in their appearance.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

The coils resemble a dragon and were meant to symbolically and/or perhaps literally protect the wearer from tiger bites. Necessity remains the mother of invention. 

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

Tigers still roam the area around the Golden Triangle and local hill tribes fear & respect them. Due to the tiger's shrinking habitat it means that encounters with humans will only increase until there are no more left.
Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

Over the few decades, due to conflict with the military regime in Burma, many Kayan people fled to the border area of Thailand. Refugees have a dubious status under the strict Thai immigration laws.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

Among all the various refugee camps on the border, Long Neck villages became a revenue generating tourist attraction and did not require the financial assistance that other refugee camps in the area did. Critics claim these villages are nothing more than human zoos.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme
I've had a couple of opportunities to visit these "Long Neck Villages" during visits to the Golden Triangle. 

There is a set price per person or per bus load depending on the exact location and arrangements made by those overseeing the operation. The villages are usually set off from the main road.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

There is an entrance / admission fee paid by the driver to the local agent. This is usually calculated and included in the price of the tour and many tourists are unaware that they were even required to pay an entrance fee to gain access to the village.

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme

Tourists can then walk through the village, attempt to communicate with the women, purchase souvenirs and take photographs. Some of the women were able to speak a little bit of Thai so I was able to chat with them a bit. 

Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme
Playing a home made guitar
The Kayan women are friendly and become even friendlier if you purchase souvenirs from them.
Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme
Mother & Child

They weave their own textiles and they have silk, purses, jewelry and even pieces of the brass coil they wrap around their necks available for sale. They sell the items for a few dollars a piece.
Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme
Mother & Daughter
The vendors were nowhere near as aggressive as the markets in the local villages.
A beautiful smile

There are many other hill tribes in the area with different languages, customs and culture. As we were leaving the village and preparing for another mini-van from hell return to Chiang Rai I ran into this character.
Long Neck Karen Portraits by © Michael LaPalme



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