Photography & travel tips from an award-winning photographer, educator & wanderlust

Karen Long-neck tribe in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Gearing up for winter 2017 travel, I cant keep from forgetting our last year’s most memorable winter travel moments from Vietnam and Thailand. Though my husband and I are huge fans of Thailand and have visited that country about 5 times, we never ventured out into the Northern part. Visiting Chiang Mai would not be complete without paying a visit to the Karen Village, a tribe from Myanmar which has settled on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Famous for their long necks, this tribe lives off tourists visiting their villages and purchasing their goods, made from wood, knit or metal.

Entrance into the village was a bit steep (500 bhat or $14-15) compared to other Thai attractions, but we can only hope that all if not most of that money goes to this tribe.

The place was practically empty, with some Chinese tourists walking around. This helped to take the bulls eye off me as I was giddily snapping away at bored-looking girls, girls watching TV, those tending to their children or other ladies working.

You see, most of them are selling the wares and tending to the children, while the men are out, making wooden statues and whatever else it is that men do. We didn’t see any of them while we were there.

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Since the place wasn’t very busy, many sales girls and women were asking me to buy something from them in exchange for me taking their picture. If I always did just that, I’d probably barely make it home with all the souvenirs and nik-naks from my travels. This place was so unique and unlike I’ve ever seen (see long neck jewelry later) that I did end up walking away with something very special.

Some of the scarves looked so beautiful and came in a variety of colors. You could even witness the process of how they were made.

Some of the women wore their long neck rings where you’d expect, but others surprised us with them worn in other parts of the body. We later found out that some of them do it to extend their limbs, while others do it purely for decoration.

Along the way, we were able to witness the materials they use for their buildings – straw. Walking past the school, humbled us -fellow teachers – to the core.

Honestly, walking around and witnessing how they live or the lifestyle they want tourists to witness was very depressing, even among all the bright colors and designs. We were feeling helpless not being able to purchase something from every single shop location. We finally came across a very sweet looking shop keeper, who was very friendly towards our pleasantries and questions about her life. In our 10-15 minute conversation were able to learn a few valuable and insightful things about this long-necked tribe.

She learned English just by sheer interaction with tourists. She/some girls wear extra decorations and accessories they wouldn’t otherwise wear in their daily lives. They don’t learn to write their language. Sometimes they leave the village and go into town to get groceries or clothing. She was wearing a combination of Western style wear and her own designs. This village is where they actually leave. She came from Myanmar (Burma) and settled here with her family. The rings are painful but a part of their culture. Once they come on, they don’t come off, unless it’s the prop version (which they put on tourists). 

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This lovely girl made our first couple of days in Chiang Mai feel so incredible just by having a short conversation with us. I will never forget this interaction.

Though some people may say that visiting these tribes is unethical or it is not the authentic experience that you would get in Myanmar. I hope that every tourist makes an effort to reach out, be it through supporting with a purchase, a conversation, volunteering their time or even just a smile. To them, we may be just as unique or strange looking, but the biggest thing we can learn from travel is COMPASSION, OPEN MIND and A SENSE OF COMMUNITY.


If you enjoy this post, check out other things we loved about Chiang Mai and what you can’t get away from there.

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