One of the main reasons to drive up to North Thailand (watch the whole round trip description in here) was to be able to see the long-neck women. I hadn’t seen much more than a few images and, though I felt lazy to investigate further, there was some sort of fascination about it. Why would these women self mutilate in such a way? Was it purely aesthetics? Was it some sort of captivity? I heard that after many years wearing brass rings, the neck muscles couldn’t hold the head anymore (not true, at least, in the majority of cases). Was it some sort of male dominance over women?
I wondered (and still do) what would be for these women to do sex?! Anyway, there was cooler to visit the people than to read on them over the internet, so off I went.
From Mae Hong Son to Ban Nai Soi, there wasn’t much more than half an hour; from the village to the Kayan camp, maybe another half, as the road wasn’t in the best condition.
I remember seeing a barbwire fenced gate of a refugee camp that wasn’t accessible to tourists – spooky! What wound be going on, inside? Guerrilla movie scenes and torture camps in tropical jungles, crossed my mind. Previously, on the road from Pai to Ban Nai Soi, there were quite a few huts along the roads, with guards controlling them. They were always friendly, never asked for any documentation or searched the motorbike and I never managed to know what were they controlling…
What is this concept of “refugee” imposed by Thai government? On a stop for lunch on a small restaurant by the road, there was a group of Karen music players. (Karen is the whole ethnical group where the Kayan belong). They were polite and introduced themselves. At first I thought they’d be asking for money, but I was totally wrong. All they wanted was someone to talk to, in English – and their level was probably better than mine.
From what I understood (and confirmed later) the Karen fled to Thailand to save their lives from the ethnical cleansing attempts from the Burmanese majority in Myanmar, happening in various waves, since the country’s independence. Thai government allows them to stay in certain areas, but they cannot leave them (that’s why all the road guards), or work, meaning: if they want to sustain themselves or their families, either they live on tourism, or they work illegally, for a fraction of what a Thai citizen would earn.
The long-necks, being displayed on zoo-like villages (some charging an entry fee), live on showing themselves to tourists and souvenirs selling. That’s why some young women choose to wear the rings, as it’s a way to a guaranteed sustenance.
As for the remaining Karen, they dream with independence or immigration, and there are communities being settled in the US and Canada, from the early 2000’s. That’s why they prize so much education and English proficiency.
I said goodby to the group of artists and proceeded to the long-neck village. It was nearly empty. At the entrance, there were two souvenir shops, and one long-neck woman. Soon, a second one joined, as more tourists were coming. I followed the main path, found a few kind youngsters waving from their motorbikes, and a simple village, made on wood and dry leaves.
The only sound of human activity came from the school, so I sneaked-in. Classes went on an orderly manner, kids were attentive and, though it seemed poor, for European standards, it also seem way more productive.
Coming back at the entrance, a group of tourists was chatting to one of the long-neck women and finding out roughly the same as described above. Again, the lady spoke really good English, and also played the guitar.
She had some sort of conformed, passive temperament, and didn’t seem, at all, revolted or unhappy with her faith. That caused a deep impression on me. I couldn’t possibly accepted being displayed as a tourist object for life!
Visiting this lost tribe among the jungle ended up being a strong lesson on temperament diversity.