Why we Decided NOT to Visit the Long Neck Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai

Why we Decided NOT to Visit the Long Neck Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai

There are many wonderful things to do in Chiang Mai. While visiting the North of Thailand, we were very tempted to see some of the local tribes and especially the Karen Tribe. The Karen are a tribal group who are originally from Myanmar. They fled to Thailand during the political disturbance of the past. The Karen Tribe now live in small villages in the area of Chiang Mai.

Long Neck Karen Tribe

The most popular Karen tribe around Chiang Mai is the Long Neck Karen Tribe. Women from this small population are known worldwide for wearing rings around their neck to elongate it. In the past, it was a protection from tiger attacks, today it’s considered a symbol of beauty and modern day accessory.

Prior to our travels we decided to make some researches about touristic visits of the Karen Tribes villages. We do not want to support any kind of tourism that is not ethical or harmful in any way. The same goes for spending a day with elephants in Chiang Mai.

We discovered that the Karens, even after years of living in Thailand, are still being refused a Thai citizenship… They have limited access to electricity, roads, health care and schools. Furthermore, Thai authorities forced some Karens to move to villages created with the sole purpose of tourists entertainment. Those people are exploited in exchange of tourists money that mainly goes to the government.

The Reality of Tribe Villages

The entry fee to those privately-owned villages ranges from about 8 to 16 USD. However, the money doesn’t go to Karens directly. They receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales. The women wearing neck rings earn an extra salary. Those people live and work in a live-in gift shop. It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century a literal human ZOO is one of the biggest attractions for tourists. Just imagine: people come for the sole purpose of taking picture of a women wearing rings around her neck.

Thai authorities refuse to grant Karens a residential status, profiting big money from those villages each year. Therefore, those tribes are forced to live in those circumstances. Nor them nor their future generations have a chance for better, free life.

Unless visitors make the effort to research and learn by themselves the reality of what they visit, those government controlled villages will not stop. Once money flow decreases, the authorities will have no business keeping Karens in those villages. Thats a step to granting them a citizenship, therefore allowing them to pursue different jobs and having better life’s.

Should you go?

We leave this decision to each of you. Thinking deeply about the issue, we decided that visiting a place just to take pictures of people living there is uncompassionate and simply not a nice thing. Specially that Karens poor life style is forced on them because of the tourism.

However, you CAN visit the tribes in an ethical way and contribute to making their life better. As the refugee status doesn’t allow women to work in any other way, money made out of tourism supports their families.

Read : Chang Mai what’s best to do in North Thailand’s capital

How to visit responsibly

When planning a tour to Karen Village make sure to do your research and find a responsible tour company that will promote a socially responsible visit. You can even look for private guides (that you would find there directly) who will take you to their own villages.

Make sure your money benefits the village directly instead of third-party companies. You can make a donation to the chief of the village or support the women by purchasing their handicrafts.

Don’t think of this visit only as an opportunity to take pictures. Try to learn about their culture people and life’s and interact with them without a camera first.

Remember: Travel is about learning and opening our minds. It’s about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures.

We encourage you to travel wisely. ?❤️

Read : How to spend a wonderful day with elephants in Chiang Mai.

Blog comments (24)

  • Leea Meh Mo

    the long neck tribe is usually used as tourist target places but behind the scenes they are actually treated badly, military airstrikes their villages, steal their source of food, burn villages by the goverment and military, many of them has fleed to Thailands border as refugees since Myanmars military is haunting them and use them as zoo animals to get money out of them.

    I recommend leaving them alone and let them be in peace in their own village and not letting them get used to being forced to smile and think its okey for them to be a like a zoo animal.

    • martynabudna

      Hi Leea, we wrote this article after doing our research and coming to a similar opinion like you. That’s why we decided against visiting the tribe. Thank you for taking the time to share your views with us and our readers.

  • Marita

    My daughter worked for an NGO for 2 years helping kids from Myanmar getting their Thai high school diplomas and some of them received full scholarships in Europe for universities. The future is not all bleak. Granting Thai citizenship tho is hard. I assume refugees all over the world have the same problem.

    We just returned yesterday from a trek visiting Karen, Lisu, Akha and staying overnight with Lahu. Living conditions were very similar with all tribes. Actually (before trekking) Karen family’s concrete house in Ruammit sub district was amongst the best.

    Traveling and visiting can also be responsible and sustainable.

    • martynabudna

      Dear Marita,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. You are absolutely right in your comment ‘Traveling and visiting can also be responsible and sustainable.’ We hope with out travels and travel blogs to inspire people to do exactly that.
      Also can we say – you must be very proud of your daughter! The world is a much better place with her in it, doing the wonderful work to help underprivileged kids in Myanmar. Please thank her from us.

      Martyna & Hamilton

  • Michael J. Wolter

    Thank you very much for acquainting me with the tragic dilemma of the Karen people. In the second paragraph under “Long Neck Karen Tribe,” you write, “We do not want to support any kind of tourism that is not ethical or harmful in any way.” Based on the rest of your article, I believe you intended to convey, “We do not want to support any kind of tourism that is unethical or harmful in any way.” Though your intended meaning is discernible, the double “not” construction might easily confuse readers and distract them from your benevolent intent.

    • Voyage In Style

      Dear Mr Wolter, thank you ever so much for your comment and remark. Indeed, we are trying to support only ethical tourism. We corrected the grammar mistake, thank you for bringing it to our intention. We hope that our article helped you in your research. That being said, from the comments and feedback received from our community, it appears that there are 2 villages of the Karen people that one can visit. One seems to be more authentic where you can meet and learn from Karen prople, while the other resembles more of a tourist trap / shop.

  • Hanja

    I must add to my comment, that there are two long neck villages near Mae Hong Son and one definitely is a tourist scam. This is the one closest to MHS. So better not go there!

  • Hanja

    We went just the two of us (no tour, no guide) on the recommendation of an Australian teacher who lives and teaches in Mae Hong Son. He has a pupil in his class who lives in the ” long neck” village and she urged us to go.
    In the village we had a long conversation with one of the long neck women. She was quite positive about her own situation: she earned enough money with selling home made items in her stall. Her children went to school and were Thai (she had a Thai husband.) She was in the (probably never ending) process of getting the Thai nationality and she worried about her mother, who was still living under severe repression of the junta in Myanmar.
    She told us she wears the neck ring voluntarily, because she wants to keep up the traditions of her tribe, of which she is very proud. (Her mother is wearing a ring too.)
    This woman was very intelligent and her English was quite good (autodidact learning from you tube and talking to tourists).
    Needless to say she welcomed the tourists. She did not mention (part of the) entree fee going to the government (on entering you get a very friendly formulated explanation on paper saying that the money is used for water and electricity in the village).
    – which doesn’t mean that this is not the case, of course.
    The Thai government does not want the Burmese refugees, just like so many other (European) countriesdon’t want theirs. But they are there and try to make a living.
    Whether helping them is at the same time supporting the government, we could not figure out.
    It remains a dilemma.

    • Voyage In Style

      Hey Hanja, thank you for your detailed report of your experience ! It sounds like there are indeed woman profiting from the current situation of the Karen Tribe and that is wonderful to read.
      If we ever go back to Chiang Mai (and we loved our time spent there) we will make sure to try and go to the Karen Tribe following your advices.

  • trail runner

    for me visiting the karen tribe was so special . yes you have to pay to get in , but of course i’m pretty sure some of that money go to the tribe . i bought lots of the scarves from them. that’s a little help for them too . buying from different store make them happy .

    • Voyage In Style

      Hello dear, and thank you for your comment! Supporting those woman by buying their product directly is of course one very good way of supporting them 🙂 We just hope there are (or were) not taxed in any ways by the government for that

  • Salva

    I have red your comment and agree with it. Going to Chian May it would still be interesting to contact the local tribes to learn about their traditions and if possible give help. Have you suggest?

    • Voyage In Style

      Hey Salva,
      Of course you can always go to the tribes and make the visit with a guide. At least some money should go to them, and contribute to their lifestyle. From all the comments we read here, nobody had a bad experience going there. Maybe the situation is better there now 🙂

  • Sharp

    I felt pretty bad about the display and learning about their condition. So, I went back the next day with some early education learning tools and toys for the kids with the same guide. They let me in without ticket. People were very grateful.

    • Voyage In Style

      Hey Sharp,
      Thank is so nice of you. I’m sure the Karen Tribe are very nice people. We wrote this article because we felt that their condition was not helped by the constant tourist rush but instead caused by it. Now, maybe the condition changed since, maybe it is actually needed by them and they decided to agree to this. In any case we just hope that they are not forced to anything.
      Anyways, bringing directly to them and their kids toys and learning tools is incredibly generous and straight to the point! I’m sure they were super appreciative 🙂

  • Graham Ford

    Having visited the Karen Hill Tribe village today, I witnessed a group of beautiful friendly women who live in primitive conditions. They welcome us tourists and benefit from the goods they make and sell. I cannot vouch for what happens to the 500baht each entry fee but, an official receipt is issued with every ticket. I’d read that any visit could be regarded as a “Disney Land” visit. Completely wrong.

    • Voyage In Style

      Hi Graham, thank you for your testimonial!!

      I’m very happy to hear that you liked your experience there and that it felt authentic. As we decided not to go, based on what we read, we were not able to judge for ourselves. Maybe it changed for the better with time. I’m sure it was a memorable experience nonetheless!

  • Glen

    I have been back and forth on visiting the Karen villages. You provided additional insight into this. I now feel as though i can m ake a better decision.
    Many thanks.

    • Voyage In Style

      We are really happy to read that! We hope you had a great time in beautiful Chiang Mai!

  • Islam Berkemajuan

    Thanks for the informations! surely helped my day!

  • Phil

    You should have gotten off your high horse and visited. Your visit would have helped than more than the effort you spent trashing the few things they earn money from

  • Nino mascolo

    Thank you for the article I about the Long Neck Karen Tribe. It seems like a no win situation, where it would be difficult to help the villagers without encouraging the Government to continue its inhumane program.
    Do you know if the Craft Villages near Luang Prabang are similar?

    • Voyage In Style

      Hi Nino, and thank you for your comment and sorry for the late reply!
      It is a tricky situation indeed with no easy solutions. We didn’t get to visit the craft Villages near Luang Prabang so we won’t be able to tell you how they are..
      In any cases, we hope you had a great trip if you went to the north of Thailand.

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