Long neck, big ears... four eyes?

Trip Start Sep 09, 2011
Trip End Jun 29, 2012

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Monday, October 17, 2011

Today we went to visit some hilltribes in the area north of Chiang Mai with an Australian teacher called Mac (another invite to visit in Oz, score), a transvestite called Ne-Ne and an ex-monk called Dom. Good crowd ;o)

The Karen tribes are in fact refugees from Burma, having escaped over the border during unrest. They originally are from China, crossing over 150 years ago to settle in what is now Myanmar. There are 5 main tribes; Long Neck, Big Ears, White Karen, Red Karen and Black Karen. Most mahouts are Karen in fact, because they are so used to living in jungle environments. Most of these hilltribes are either Buddhists, worship their ancestors, or have become Christian. Some missionaries went to help these tribes, setting up churches and schools... although in honesty when we visited, it felt a bit like they had given up and gone home.

When we arrived in the White Karen village we were seriously mobbed by children who wanted to sell us bracelets they had made. It was actually very funny, and we enjoyed playing with them. We went to go and see a lady that Ne-Ne knew who was the only older single lady in the village. The White Karen are called this simply because their single women have to wear white until they marry. They also have to pay for their husband and the wedding, as the husband is expected to come back and live in the village. Hilariously I think one of the women in the village was trying to encourage Rebecca to marry her chubby grandson... he looked about 7. She must have sensed the Home Counties wealth and decided Bec was a good investment. I've been in Nottingham too long clearly, and all she sensed from me was midlands.

It was really depressing seeing this lady basically hiding in her dark, bamboo home in her white dress. I felt so sorry for her, and felt very voyeuristic and like we were embarrassing her, so we quietly walked away.

In the same village we met some villagers who had dark red, almost black teeth. They chew a bitter nut which has a slight narcotic component, but also because they think that the dark teeth is really attractive. It's not. They looked like medieval peasants... or vampires.

Weirdly some of the very basic homes had satellite dishes attached to them... we didn't even see any electricity cables! Apparently some of the younger generation have left the village for education and work, but then bring back some of the money to try and slightly modernise the village. It's not exactly doing that, but then I'm not sure they entirely want it anyway. In a lot of places in Thailand, Karen or otherwise, communities share food, share farmland and crops, and support each other. Perhaps this is the best way. Why spoil it?

After a short stop at the Chiang Dao Cave, we went on to a long neck and big ears village. It felt really consumerist and touristy, and a bit exploitative to be honest. It was really interesting to see these women, but there was a kind of tension in knowing that while your tourist money buying souvenirs might be helping otherwise struggling people (especially as long neck people have no rights in Thailand at the moment), it was also both exploiting their cultural practise, but also possibly supporting a practise which is not necessarily a good one. The Thai long-necks are a little different to the African tribe, as the rings on their neck are not separate, it is in fact a coil of Burmese brass that twisted around their neck. Dom told us that in fact the neck does not get longer, but the weight of the rings pushes their shoulders down making it appear that way. Either way, it can't be comfortable.

Only the women wear them, and they start when they are 5 years old with four rings around their neck. This is added to with another 4 rings every 4 years. The maximum number that they can have is 27 rings. Unlike the African tribe they can take the coil off when they have a new lot added, and they also take them off when they are pregnant (at about 3 months to about 2 weeks after the baby is born). There are a few different stories as to WHY they wear them, but the Karen have no written history, so it is difficult to know what is what.

The Big Ears tribe also start their practise at the age of 5, where they get their first enlarging earrings. It takes about 10 years to fully stretch them.

It was strange to think of having a tradition that no-one entirely knows why they do it continuing like this. We have plenty of weird traditions that no-one questions in our culture too, but something that causes permanent disfigurement like this seems a bit questionable. It was really interesting though, and the little children in the village were absolutely gorgeous.
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