The Karen-Pa-Dong Hill Tribe are also known as either “Long Necks” or “Giraffe Women”, they prefer to be called Ka-Yan having originated from Myanmar’s northern, highland state of Ka-Ya.
There are now thought to be only around 7,000 Karen-Pa-Dong in total, of this total about 300 fled to Thailand during the 1980’s and now live along the Thai/Myanmar border in three villages around the province of Mae Hong Son.
The group face many of the hardships which other hill tribe peoples face in Thailand, they are not recognized as Thai citizens and therefore they do not have access to medical care, education, or other rights granted to citizens, furthermore, they are not permitted to be employed within Thailand !.
There are many myths surrounding the tribes custom of elongating the neck by the wearing of brass rings.
One of the most popular ones being that the headman of the tribe had a dream in which he saw that a tiger was going to kill one of the most popular children in his village, and as tigers always kill their victims by first breaking their necks, he there and then decreed that all children from an early age must wear heavy brass rings round their necks to protect them from imminent danger & evil spirits. As the tiger attack never materialised, it was presumed that the wearing of the brass rings worked, this tradition has carried on right up to present times.
As you wander around the villages you will spot few if any men, the reason for this is that they are generally out labouring in the rice fields or hunting in the jungle.
It is the Karen-Pa-Dong women who are the main attraction to the visiting hoardes of tourists, who are constantly intrigued by the numerous brass rings worn around the neck and limbs by the women.
According to their culture, wearing brass neck – rings symbolizes a beautiful form of body adornment. Girls start with their first nine rings as early as five years of age and new sets are substituted every four years on nine separate occasions. The last change occurs when a women is 45 years old.
The weight and number of rings depends much on each wearer’s individual choice; the longest recorded is 32 brass rings weighing 13 – 15 kilos (around 32lbs !!).
The truth about the Karen-Pa-Dong women is that they do not even have elongated necks! The heavy brass coils which they fit around their necks press down on the rib cage and cause the ribs to grow downwards.
Furthermore, the weight of the coils pushes the necks and shoulder muscles deep into the shoulders. This creates the illusion of a longer neck, when in fact it is the upper body which has been shaped into the appearance of a longer neck.
The Karen-Pa-Dong Hill Tribe people appear to accept the visitors curiosity about them with a mixture of charm and intrigue and seem to enjoy the attention that brings.
The process of paying an entrance fee to the villages is certainly more preferable to the begging that goes on in other hill tribe villages, but you can’t help but wonder how much of the fees are kept by the villagers & how much is grabbed by the tour operators who run the villages almost as “theme parks”.
Visitors to the villages will be bombarded with a wide range of “homemade”Souvenirs & Gifts that the villagers have made, this also helps to sustain their way of life, so please support them by making a couple of small purchases.
There was a case reported locally a year or two ago whereby a Karen-Pa-Dong girl of around 10 years of age had disappeared without trace from her village, returning just as mysteriously around a month later, she admitted to her parents that she had been taken by someone to a resort near Chiang Mai and that she had been promised payment (that never materialized) to have her photograph continually taken with visiting tourists, exploitation or what ??.
If you want to visit the Karen Pa-Dong Longnecks in the village of Nai Soi near Mae Hong Son,and will be travelling from Chiang Mai, there are two different options one is by road (car/bus) the other is by flight.
The car journey takes between 10-12 hours, so I would suggest you break the journey up & stay-over in Pai for the night,it’s a lovely town roughly half-way between Chiang Mai & Mae Hong Son.
If you choose to fly Thai Airways operate a single flight per day, flight takes just 35 minutes!!.
Once you arrive at Mae Hong Son you have the choice of either booking a place that Includes the Tours you want to do, or alternatively Book the Hotel separately & then look around the town to decide on the tours(there are MANY tour companies) around the town, and you will get exactly what you want by booking it directly this way.