Meeting the Karen (Long Neck) and Akha People of Northern Thailand

The Karen People

Originally from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the Karen Tribe is known to have a very unique custom which marked as the tribe’s identity. As young as 5 years old, girls start to wear brass rings around their necks, arms and shin. As they get older, the coil gets heavier and more rings are added making their necks look longer. Actually, the necks don’t stretch, but the clavicle is pushed down due to the heavy rings worn. Once the coil is on, it is seldom removed because of its lengthy procedure. Sometimes it is taken off for medical reasons. It was believed that the tribe wear the rings as cultural identity associated with beauty. Some younger women have started to take off the rings when they decide to continue their education or protest against the exploitation of their culture.


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A long neck Karen woman of Chiang Rai wearing rings on her neck, arms and shin.
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A Karen woman busy weaving.

Most Karen people in Thailand came as refugees and are not allowed to work outside the camp, however, they are self-sufficient since many tourists would come to see them. A fee of 500 – 600 baht is collected at the entrance for the village maintenance. Aside from the entrance fee that aids them financially, they sell souvenir items as well. The women of the tribe are skilled in weaving and wood carving while men work in the farm.


How to Visit the Village


It is best to visit the village with an organized tour. There are numerous travel agencies online and around Thailand that offer the best deals. Prices vary so try to look for the best bargain usually prices range from 1100.00 – 1500 baht for a group tour from Chiang Mai. The tour inclusion that I purchased: Hot Spring, White Temple, Golden Triangle, Karen Long Neck Tribe, Akra Tribe and lunch. I was staying in Chiang Mai so it took 13 – 15 hour to complete the tour.

If you don’t want to experience the tedious group tour to Chiang Rai, the Baan Ting Kuang Village is the easiest option to visit 5 of the unique tribes in Chiang Mai. You can take a taxi or tuk-tuk. Though the village is more commercialized and not as authentic as the other villages in Northern Thailand, the opportunity of meeting and learning about the different tribes is fascinating.


Meeting the Akha and Karen People


After lunch, we were on our way to the village. The tour guide collected 500 baht as entrance fee from each of the tour participants. We were first introduced to the Akha people. The Akha is one of the indigenous hill tribe of Thailand. They are also immigrants from from Southeast Asia and China.


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An Akha woman with her grandson.
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The Akha people are very superstitious. This is a spirit gate located at the entrance of the village. It marks the division between people and the spirit world.
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A typical Akha house.
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Akha people are also dependent on tourists for their income. Most of them are souvenir vendors.

Before they migrated to Thailand they were dependent on agriculture. They raise farm animals, fish, grow vegetables and rice. Since they have limited access to Thailand’s agricultural benefits, they are mostly seen as vendors selling local souvenirs to tourists.


Few meters away from the Akha Village is the separate village of the Karen Tribe. The Karen people live in small houses which are situated behind their little souvenir shops. Most of them are busy weaving and making souvenirs. The heavy brass ring circling on their necks doesn’t seem to bother them as they do their daily tasks. Some children with brass rings play around while the teenagers smile sweetly as they greet visitors.

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The Karen people’s village. From afar, you will see their small stores displaying colorful items. Same as the Akha people, they are dependent on tourists for their income since they can’t work outside the refugee camp.
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Since these tribes are dependent on tourists, please purchase souvenir items from them before leaving the village.
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I was so overwhelmed when I finally met a Karen woman in person. I read a lot about them before I went to visit Chiang Rai and she looked amazing face to face compare to pictures online.

I met a woman who was wearing 27 brass rings on her neck. The guide said she is wearing the most rings in all of the Karen women in Northern Thailand.

The tribes are good English speakers so it’s not difficult to communicate with them and some can speak more than 1 foreign language.


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I had a great time with this little girl and her mom. She was showing off her language skills. She can speak more than 1 foreign language.
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A beautiful Karen woman and her daughter.

Most tourists snap photos of them, buy a few of their souvenir items and leave, missing the essence of the tribe which is the people composing it. I had a great time talking to a young Karen woman and her daughter. The little girl can even speak Spanish and was better than me. I bought some souvenir items from them, a ring for 100 baht and a bracelet for the same price.


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So happy to have visited the village. It was a great experience meeting them.
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I tried an Akha headdress. Maybe I should stick to my regular hair routine. The headdress looks better on her. 😀
I didn’t feel that the place was like a human zoo as people describe or feel towards it. I see them as people with amazing culture and tradition. For sure they don’t want to be dependent, it’s just that they are in an unfortunate situation.
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