thailand chang mai - the long necks - backpacking around the world in 333 days
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REPORT 16 - Jan. 2001

Thailand - Chang Mai
The Long Neck's

Promoted as the 'Rose of the North', the ancient walled city of Chang Mai has risen to prominence as the trekking capital of Thailand. The young and the 'young at heart' come for adventure and the promise of cooler weather, but it is the possibility of meeting the myriad, colourful hill tribes that sells out the sleeper train from Bangkok. A pleasant and historic city, its famous wat's and tuk tuk lined streets provide a vibrant cityscape against a striking mountainous backdrop; the ideal base for more adventurous trips up to the Myanmar boarder. The sheer mass of tourists however is causing concern that the hill tribe's unique culture and beliefs are slowly being lost forever.

We decided early on we did not want to go trekking; our camel safari experiences still foremost in our minds. Seeing the hill tribes, in particular the famous Karen Padaung Long Necks, however had to be done. Opting to take the easier air-conditioned mini bus, it was a very long drive. We set off early from Chang Mai, our first stop a visit to the Chiang Dao Caves, a huge complex of 5 winding tunnel systems, each with its own spectacular stalagmites and stalactites. The main cave had electric lighting, but for the rest we were guided by lantern light through the eerie dungeons of the earth.

Back out in daylight we continued our journey, eventually reaching the Long Neck tribe. On our way in, we passed some women from the distinctive Akha tribe who hang around the edges of the village selling jewellery. Arriving in the village, we found all the 'human zoo' clichés to be true. The women politely sat by their souvenir stalls waiting to be photographed by the sometimes rude and overbearing tourists. The village was typically Karen with stilted houses and the odd chicken passing through, but some of the traditions of the past had clearly been shelved in order to please the tourist's demands for 'longer necks'.

Originally, it was only supposed to be girls born on the Wednesday of a full moon that had to wear the rings - starting at the age of five- until they were married or reached about 25. Nowadays the vast majority of girls wear the rings, some girls we saw were barely 8 years old but they wore 15-20 rings; vivid proof that the longer the neck, the more attention you attract and the more tourist trinkets you are likely to sell. How the ring tradition was started though is still not clearly understood. Some believe it to have been a way of protecting women from wild tigers that attack the neck, while others believe its origins can be traced back to a method of preventing the women from being kidnapped by rival tribes.

I managed to talk to one of the women through an interpreter and ask her all the questions she probably hears all day long. She was wearing a mammoth 27 rings and told me they hurt continuously, and no, she never takes them off. With each ring weighing up to 2kg, I could not even imagine how painful and uncomfortable they must be. I felt sorry for the women, especially the young girls, sitting patiently by their stalls, it did not seem like much of a life. Many of the Karen tribe fled across the boarder from Burma during the 1980's because of land disputes with the Burmese Government. The Karen Long Necks found in Thailand today are one of the wealthier tribes and at least they feel their lives are no longer at risk as they were in Burma.

We did enjoy seeing the Long Necks, but the mystery and intrigue behind their story is perhaps better that the tourist crowded reality. Some people say you should not visit the Long Necks as you are only helping to erode their way of life; the decision however is a complex one. For all it is worth, recent research has shown that the necks of the women are not in-fact 'long', only that their rib cages are crushed to give the illusion of greater length. Be it crushed ribs or long necks, the tourists who come to gape will care little, as seeing the Long Neck tribe, no matter how spoilt by the trappings of modern tourism, is still an awesome and unique spectacle.

Jon & liz
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Karen Padaung Woman

The Ancient Walls of Chang Mai

Cave Guide

Woman from the Akha Hill Tribe

Child of the Karen Padaung

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The Beginning 14 - THAILAND Bangkok
01 - INDIA Delhi 15 - THAILAND Bridge Over the River Kwai
02 - INDIA Agra Taj Mahal 16 - THAILAND Chang Mai - The Long Necks
03 - INDIA Jaipur 17 - AUSTRALIA Kakadu National Park
04 - INDIA Camel Safari 18 - AUSTRALIA Ayers Rock
05 - INDIA Mount Abu 19 - AUSTRALIA Great barrier Reef
06 - INDIA Goa 20 - AUSTRALIA Fraser Island
07 - INDIA Mumbai (Bombay) 21 - AUSTRALIA Sydney
08 - HONG KONG 22 - NEW ZEALAND South Island
09 - PHILIPPINES Boracay & Panglao Island 23 - NEW ZEALAND North Island
10 - PHILIPPINES Bohol Chocolate Hills 24 - USA Hawaii Oahu Island
11 - PHILIPPINES Banaue Rice Terraces 25 - USA San Francisco
12 - MALAYSIA Kuala Lumpur 26 - USA Washington DC
13 - MALAYSIA Penang, Georgetown 27 - USA New York
  28 - UK - THE END
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Tourist Crowded Karen Village