We continued our tour around Chiang Rai with a visit to the Golden Triangle and Karen Long Neck Village. The Golden Triangle refers to the point where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet through the Mekong and Ruak River. The viewpoint is located on the riverside along Chiang Rai where various points of interest like the giant golden Buddha on a ship, elephant statues, elaborate shrines to the royal family and more were built. Thailand is so close to Myanmar that you can actually cross the border by foot at the nearby town Mae Sai. Both locals and tourists cross this border a lot to shop for plenty of affordable accessories, decor, food and Chinese imports. To be honest, this part of the tour was nowhere near eventful but since we were already in the area, we might as well check it out. The real highlight of our trip that day was the cultural experience we had at the Karen Long Neck Village. The Karen is a tribe that originally came from Myanmar. They’re known for their tradition of beautifying women by elongating their necks through the use of brass rings. The more brass rings worn around the neck of a woman, the prettier she is. It’s a tradition that has raised a lot of issues though. You see, these brass rings, which the Karen women also wear around their shins and arms, are made out of one solid piece of metal. I got to try a small piece and boy was it heavy! As early as age 5 or 6, Karen womem start wearing them around their necks with new rings added each year. These rings stay on pretty much their entire lives so imagine the effect they have on the women’s neck muscles. Over time, these women eventually lose the ability to hold their heads up by themselves. Without the rings, their necks would break. And because the brass rings are heavy, they actually smash the shoulders and rib cages of the women. This is how their necks appear unusually long.
I asked our guide if these women have a choice. Since it’s a really old tradition, maybe they can choose not to wear the brass rings. She says they do but they don’t really stay with the tribe. Most of the Karen people here are refugees so they can’t go out of the tribe and look for work in Thailand. They rely on tourists’ donations and the selling of souvenirs for money. This is why one wonders if they’re doing this to uphold a tradition or only as a means to earn. Personally, I’d like to think it’s the former. Although I find the tradition worrisome, as an outsider, I respect it. The Karen women I met here are all so nice and friendly, I only wish them good things. I may never understand their tradition, but it was definitely a learning experience for me–the kind I long for whenever I travel.