Long Necked Karen of Baan Nai Soi

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I hired a motorbike from the 12 year old Shan girl at PA Motorbike Car for Rent (located next to the lake in central MHS) for 150 B and a deposit of your passport. Drove about 25km (see map) to Baan Nai Soi. You pass an Army check point along the way which waves you through with a smile. Aparently they are only looking for Burmese military or drug smugglers. The road is good most of the way but be careful on some of the corners as there is loose gravel. The last few kms are rough loose corrogated dirt track also, but mainly not too bad.

Oh, already by the time I arrived at the Long Neck village I had seen a couple of Long Neck ladies watching a soccer match at a nearby school and another wearing jeans and t-shirt and no brass rings around her neck, although her neck was clearly elongated. I have heard some people say the ladies cannot take the rings off as they are no longer able to hold up their heads. I have heard other reports that this is rubbish. This young lady wasn't wearing her brass rings but did have her neck extended. But later in the village I asked another lady and she said she couldn't take the rings off. ? Maybe it depends on how long your neck is or how long you have had the rings.? I am not 100% sure of the accurate explanation of this part of the women's lives.

You sign into the village just outside its gate and by quickly looking in that book it appears the village gets about 20-30 visitors a day. Just inside the village you buy a ticket from the Karenni themselves for 250 B.

Anyway before describing the village I should explain aboat the Long Necked Karenni. Firstly I must say I om confused about the use of the term Karen or Karenni. The people themselves on their own signage and books seem to use either. Anyway I think the Karenni are a branch of the Karen peoples anyway. I did ask the Long Necks but didn't get a clear answer. They seem a bit un-interested in labels. They usually refer to themselves as Paduang people I think (or Kayan or Lae Kur) and the Thais refer to them as Long Necked Karen (but in Thai).

Either way are from a small tribe that usually lives in a pretty remote part of Burma (in Kayah State). Perhaps about 30 000 exist in the world. In 1987 a group escaping the war in Burma entered Thailand. They simply wanted to move to somewhere safe to re establish their village and farms and continue their lives. Other groups have followed and now there are about 5 Padong villages in Thailand. They weren't ignored as they are a fascinating group who is otherwise very difficult to visit. The tourist industry quickly started visiting these refugees. For many years I have avoided visiting the Long Necks as I heard that they were exploited by the tour companies, that they got little benefit from tourists, that they were treated and felt like a zoo exhibit and that perhaps their young girls couldn't go to school as they were told to look exotic for tourists. Only recently I decided to check this out for myself.

I cannot comment on the behavior of tour companies or about the situation in the other Long Neck villages but in Ban Nai Soi things seemed good. The villagers collected an entry fee and many homes had set up shops to get some money from the tourists.
The first home I came to had a shop being ran by a few girls. I chatted to them for a bit and two of them decided to take me around and show me their village.

I should mention that most of the talking was done in Thai language although there is one or two people in the village that speak fairly good English. But for someone who can't speak Thai and has little interest or ability to communicate thru other means then to some extent you will just be walking through the village looking at the people as in a zoo exhibit. I did see some tourists acting in that way. But up to you.

Anyway, back to the story. Mainly the people I spoke to were very happy and had an OK life. They were happy to receive visitors and didn't mind getting their photos taken, especially if they could have a look. Actually I developed the pictures that night and brought them back the following day and that made people very happy.
The village had its own school with 1 Thai teacher and some of their own teachers and so the kids got an education - at least to a basic level and unlike many other refugee villages, they were able to make some money and had some form of control over their lives.
About the rings - why? I don't know - there are a number of stories and long traditions of why maybe they wear them, but also to some extent the reason seems lost in time. Not all women in the village wear them. It is pretty much up to the individual's personal choice. Many think it is beautiful. Many do not.

Next door to the Long Necked village is a Long Eared Kayah village. Another interesting looking group of refugees from Burma. The Long Ears wear very large ear rings amongst their other distinctive costume. See pics.

Anyway - it was a good visit and I will go back again if I can. They were good people and were happy to be visited.


An article in the Nation newspaper about a week or so after my visit was about 20 Paduong caught on border entering Thailand. It wasn't sure yet but there was concern that these 20 people had been brought by a Phuket business man for human traffiking. So despite what I have written above it should be remembered that these people are poor and vulnerable and could easily be exploited. If you do have the opportunity to meet them you should ensure the people you are meeting aren't being used and the money you are spending is going to the right place. As I said I am happy to visit that village by myself but cannot verify other places or tour companies.
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paul on

From speaking to the people themselves I didn't get that impression. I am no expert and only spent a limited time there, but as I said, that didn't seem to be the case.

Where did you get your information?

The people collecting the money were Paduang, not outsiders. The Paduang told me they left Burma and came here as life in Burma was unsafe.

For sure the situation in the village wasn't perfect. They have limited land to farm and they have limited freedom to travel.
But they seemed to have more freedoms than many other refugees have and perhaps more freedom (and life) than they would have had if they had stayed in Burma.

So the situation is difficult and complicated.

Certainly since this time I have heard of women being stolen from this village.

Visiting the long necks as a tourist, even in a village that is OK, can help make the long neck people be seen as a commodity. They can then be abused and trafficked.

Not visiting them? Then what hope have they got?

And would Thailand accept them as refugees if they didn't have some possibility of earning money?

??? It is a complicated issue and one that will only be solved (or partially) when Burma stops its civil war.

Another event that is taking place - Australia and USA are trying to take in Paduang as refugees to their countries. Without doubt they will only take the healthiest and most qualified, leaving the villages with less hope. The refugees that go to USA or Australia may have a chance to earn more money, but they will have no chance to farm and live anything near a traditional life - this, despite many problems, is possible in the Thai camps.

So, as I said - very complicated issue and hard to determine right or wrong and also hard to gain accurate 'facts'.

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