Karen Tribal Village

Thursday, February 4th – Friday, February 5th 

I told you before that when I stumbled upon Panda Tours online that I was in love with their program, what I didn’t know was all the things that I had yet to learn about them and fall more in love with! According to our lose schedule we would be staying at a camp overnight; what they failed to mention is that we would be staying in a Karen tribal camp with local villagers…truly a once in a lifetime experience!!

I’ll back up a little!

We went with Panda Tours on a 2 day trek and elephant training adventure and with our tour included housing for the 6 of us for the night. Our housing, much to my surprise was a bamboo hut with minimal electricity {we had a single lightbulb hanging from our ceiling, that was it} situated in the middle of a small Karen village. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the Karen villagers, or other similar tribes, before and they are known my several different names besides their official Karen; long necks, long neck Karen, or often “those people with rings around their necks”.
Staying there for the night provoked many questions and proved to be an amazing learning opportunity for each of us!

The Karen tribes in Thailand are actually Burmese people, from Burma to the north of Thailand, whom have crossed the border (most illegally) to find work and safety in the mountains of Thailand. Because most of these villagers are livening on land illegally in Thailand, the Thai government has the right to send them back to their homelands. Several companies, such as Panda Tours, wanted to help these people and have given a piece of land to these people to build homes on as well as helping with jobs to aid the Karen people in staying in their new home of Thailand. It is very difficult for the villagers to have jobs outside of their small village of 50-60 people and for the children to go to school due to the language barrier. The Karen tribes typically speak a local tribal language as well as Burmese (although I was told many are not even fluent in Burmese) and that IF they speak Thai, it is strictly conversational and difficult to understand.

Because of these language barriers, tour groups such as Panda Tours have not only helped them to secure land to live on, but also employ the village men to take care of the elephants that live on the property as well and have some of the women work with the tour group to help cook meals & clean the hut after a night’s stay. These people are by no means force to stay there or to work with Panda Tours, but are thankful for the opportunity to have a safe place to live while having a way to make living expenses. Much of the remainder of the tribes time is spent hunting, farming, and making meals; the basics for survival in the mountains.

When I travel I love to learn. I want to know what I’m looking at, why it’s there, and what it means to me and others around me. So, naturally when I found myself staying the night in the Karen village, the questions were flowing. Below are both questions I asked as well as answers to comments and questions I have gotten from others about this unique tribe.

  1. Are there others like them? – Yes, there are other tribes around the world that wear rings around their neck, one of the more popular tribes is in Africa.
  2. Why do they wear the rings? – The people of the Karen tribe believe that the rings around their neck and legs make them look more beautiful.
  3. Do they have to wear the rings? – No! They don’t have to wear the rings. Maybe generations back they were forced to, but now it is an option if they desire to have them or not.
  4. Who wears the rings? – Only the women and girls, possibly starting as young as 5 or 6, but usually by 11 or 12. The boys and men never wear the rings.
  5. What else, following their traditions, goes along with the rings around their neck? – Besides rings around their neck, the women also have rings below their knees and above their elbows. Likewise, they sometimes paint gold designs on their faces (I am not 100% sure as to the why on this) and wear brightly colored clothing and headdresses.
  6. How are the rings put on? – The “rings” are actually not rings, but instead 1 long piece of copper that is coiled around their neck. Each year the copper is taken off their necks, knees, & arms and a new one is put on so that the person can continue to grow into their new set of “rings”
  7. Can they hold their head up if someone took the rings off? – Yes!  As mentioned above the rings are replaced every year and made bigger or smaller to adjust to the growing size of the female wearing the rings. They are not meant to harm the wearer, so of course they are safe!
  8. Are their necks really longer? – This is still debated! I have looked up several articles online and some say maybe a little, others say it’s an illusion, while others yet claim that their shoulder blades are pushed down making their necks seem longer than what is typical 

While I was at the village I played with a dozen or so of the children that were living there (because of the language barrier many also don’t attend any schools) as well as buying a hand carved Karen figurine. This figurine as well as several other handmade crafts were sold outside of most of the houses as means of making extra money with the people who come to stay in their village.

Although my time with the Karen tribe was short, it was such a learning experience for me! They are no longer simply “those Indians from National Geographic” but they are boys and girls, men and women, and they have their stories just like the rest of us, they just chose to show theirs a little differently!