I chose not to visit the Karen Long Neck villages in Thailand – or any native village for that matter. Why not?
During my month in Thailand, I noticed that most activities for tourists were things that were ‘awesome photo opportunities’. Admittedly, I gotta say, part of the draw of coming to Thailand was for exactly that – sweet, sweet photos. Bring on that Reddit karma, baby! Visiting native villages, like the long neck villages, is one of the most popular ways to get those photos.
Let’s address two questions:
1 .What is considered an “awesome photo”?
2. At what cost do these photos come?
Going in order, lets start with number one.
“What is considered an awesome photo?”
Based on my experience, people love photos of things that are any of the following: uncommon, outrageous, dangerous, extraordinary, or something they feel they will never be able to see, or experience, themselves. That last one is sad because anyone can do anything they put their mind to.
When I posted this photo from my day bathing the elephants, people went nuts!
I admit, this is one of my favorite photos from my time in Asia. That picture alone, something I can show my kids someday, was worth every penny I paid for that excursion. Even beyond the experience itself, it was worth it for that picture. Undoubtedly, the tour companies know that’s how I feel.
So what other types of activities in Thailand could make up this “show my kid someday” quality photos? There’s the popular ones you probably know: Pet the tigers, ride the elephants, hold the parrots, have a monkey sit on your shoulder, wrap a giant snake around your arms etc. Those all involve animals as the attraction – but what about people?
Now for question number two.
“At what cost do these photos come?”
I could go digress into the ethical debate of each of the previously listed activities. How the tigers are drugged (you’re a dumb shit if you think tigers are just going to sit there and let you take selfies while you lean on them).
How the monkeys are starved, the only food they receive is after ‘performing’ and sitting on a tourist’s shoulder. Each of these amazing photo opportunities potentially have their own dark cost. But we’re not here to talk about animals today.
Author’s note: Not all experiences are like that. Some places probably treat their monkeys wonderfully. There might be a tiger zoo out there that releases you with wild tigers after signing a waiver saying if you get eaten your family won’t sue – do your research.
When I was 8 or 9, my family was living in a temporary home while we built a new one. It had no air conditioning and was across from a playground I was never allowed to play at. We called it “the hot house”.
Our belongings were askew everywhere and we were half moved out of one house and half moved into another. While digging through things I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to be, I came across a boxed set of National Geographic Magazines. Each cover featured a beautiful photograph. Elephants, tigers, bears, ships, planes, trees, and large bodies of water – each one more mesmerizing than the last.
Coming to the end of the stack, I stare at something that I’m not sure how to process. A woman with gold rings around her neck – making it look very long. She’s beautiful, full of color, and exotic. Even to this day, decades later, I still remember feeling that that woman must live on another planet, and that I’d like to meet her someday. It was the most unusual thing I’d ever seen – and maybe my first bite of the travel bug.
Arriving in Chaing Mai after taking the night train from Bangkok, I was informed there was a tour that would take me to see the Long Neck villages. Not far, it would be an easy day trip guaranteed to score me some awesome photos. Things people back home might only ever dream of – like I did as a child. Maybe I would even get to meet a woman like on of the cover of the NatGeo magazine I’d seen all those years ago – the golden rings around her extended neck still glistening in my mind.
Before signing up, I wanted to do a little more research on the Karen (ka-rin) people – the natives of the Long Neck tribes. What I learned was a little off putting.
Traditionally, the brass rings get put on girls starting at the age of 6. Rings are then added every 2 years, pushing the collar bones down each time. This continues until marriage or the age of 23. While it may be their customs and tradition, the idea of girls being forced into this made me a bit uncomfortable. As a rebellious youngster myself, I take the stance that people should be able to choose what they participate in.
I also learned the Karen people are not legal citizens of Thailand. Most of them are refugees from Burma with no legal status or rights -which is part of why they are struggling. This also means that the girls would have no way of seeking help, outside resources or public assistance if they didn’t want to participate in the tribe’s customs.
The Human Zoo
Visiting a Long Neck villages in Thailand, you are actually visiting the villages. Meaning, their homes. Where they live, work and play. Intruding on that space to take their photo for your Facebook.
The whole idea to me of going somewhere to take pictures of people like zoo animals repulsed me. If it had been some sort of private, one on one experience where I would be able to give back to the village while being as unobtrusive as possible, maybe. Rolling into the village as a drove of tourists with cameras was a huge turn off to me.
I can’t speak for the tribe to say whether they mind or not – I don’t know. I can only speak to my own feelings which is that of awkwardness and guilt. Oh you’re trying to get some stitching done? Click click click, snap snap snap. Oh, you’re sweating your tits off after carrying water up a 200 foot hill and are totally panting? Can you take a quick break so we can take a selfie?
On the other side of the coin, as non-citizens, the residents of the long neck villages make most of their money off tourism. Tourists visiting and buying goods supplements their farming lifestyles, potentially giving them a better life than they would have had otherwise.
Here is where the cost is too high for me. Always having people in your face taking your picture? I have to wonder to myself if they allow it because their situation requires it (they need the money) or because they enjoy it? Are young girls forced to carry out this tradition in a miniature form of child slavery simply so that they village can continue to make money, never being forced to find other ways?
If you think that’s not a real thing, go do some reading about the lives of children who compete in pageants – there is some messed up stuff happening in that whole arena.
I left Thailand hoping I made the right decision – that I hadn’t missed out.
After spending a few weeks in Vietnam, my choice was strongly affirmed when I became the attraction. EVERYWHERE I went, people took my picture. Not discreetly, and not with consent. They would try to take a selfie with me, stop me for big group shops, pretend to take selfies of themselves when really they are taking my picture – one girl even walked up to me and kissed me while she took a picture!
I didn’t feel like a celebrity, I felt like a zoo animal. It was terrible. It drove me so crazy, I left Vietnam early. I can’t even imagine what it would be to live that lifestyle everyday – and in your own home to boot!
If you ever visit Thailand, you should make your own decision about visiting the long neck villages. I encourage you though to think about it first. Beyond ‘awesome pics for Facebook’ who else is benefiting – or losing – from your experience.
Do you think you would visit the hill tribes? Do you have an alternative view? I’d love to hear both sides – leave me a comment!
– Zoom <3