Exploring Asia - The Karen long neck village | My Paper Hub
The Karen village is made up of various
The Karen village is made up of various
villages located between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle. The name long neck
is derived from the women in the locality as they are preserved to have long
necks. The perception, however, is not correct as the women wearing the brass
coils around their necks have a normal size neck only that the coils present an
illusion of a longer neck. The weight of the brass ring pushes down the upper
ribs together with the collar bone in such a manner that the collar bone
appears to be part of the neck hence creating the illusion entirely. The women
who wear the brass coils/rings belong to a Karen sub-group known as the
Padaung. The tribe is also known as the Kayan or as they like to call
themselves “Lae Kur.” The other sub-groups however never wear the rings and
have never practiced the custom. The custom is estimated to date back as 1000
years ago during the eleventh century (Waddington).
The process of coiling the brass around
a woman’s neck begins at an early age of five years when one is still young,
and her bones are small and very flexible. The process is coordinated by an
elder woman from the tribe and who initiates the process of putting the coil.
As the girl grows and her neck is visible additional coils are added, some of
the girls look forward to this as it is an indication of growth and maturity to
them. For the adults, a full set of the brass coils can be up to 25 loops. The
coils are made in such a way that the one closer to the shoulders are wide and
are wrapped with a smaller one around it at ninety degrees and the remaining
neck rings coil up to the base of the earlobe (Waddington).
Most women find wearing the coil cumbersome in the first years, but after
wearing for more than a decade, the brass rings and the long-neck look to
become more of an integral part of their body.
Various theories have been presented on
the origin of the custom and the purpose of having the brass coil around a
woman’s neck. One proposition that has been suggested in the past is that the
brass coil was used as an identifier for a lady from the Padaung tribe. The
identifier was meant for men from other tribes to know that they cannot marry
the woman. Accompanied by a white gown a woman wearing the brass coil would indicate
their availability for marriage to the men from her tribe. Another theory is
that the brass ring was worn by women to make them look unattractive. The
proposition was developed in reference to the slave trade at the time when the
slave trade was practiced in the region. The traders would find the women in
brass coils unattractive and would not bother hunting them down for sale.
Another theory that contradicts that of slave trade suggests that the women
would wear the brass coils as they were a symbol of wealth and beauty. The
women would wear the coil to attract the men from Padaung tribe and increase
their chances of attracting a better husband ("Neck
Elongating Still Practiced Within This Indigenous Tribe").
Another theory is derived from the
mythology of Mother Dragon. Women in the Padaung tribe follow the traditions of
their mother which is believed to originate from the legend. Wearing the brass
coil is considered to be a tradition from the Mother Dragon where women wear it
to resemble the dragon. The tribe believes that it originated from the Mother
Drago as the legend of the Kayan people dictates (Keng).
The last of these theories and one that the women in today’s society believe in
is that which suggests that the coil was used to protect them from tiger bites (Mansfield). The theory can be supported by the tactics
a tiger uses when hunting. When attacking prey, the tiger ambushes the target
by leaping out and seizing the neck of the victim by plunging the teeth in it.
The definite purpose of the brass coil cannot be pinpointed, but in today’s
society, it is an identifier of the woman of the Kayan tribe. It is also a
symbol and a signature tribal marking that will continue identify the woman
from this tribe.
“People who live on the
In their language, the Kayans refer to
themselves as the people who live on the hilltops. They are also known as “Chao
Khao” where Chao means people and Khao mean mountain in Thai. They live in the
highlands and border regions of Burma, China, Laos and Thailand with their
distinctive religion, culture, language, lifestyle, art, and even dressing
code. Various Researchers have suggested in the past that the group migrated
from the southern parts of China, penetrated through Laos, Vietnam, and Burma
then stopped in Thailand. Rajani, according to Kaewnuch (2010) argues that the
Karen tribes moved to Thailand primarily because they were nomadic in nature
and moved from one place to another on a cycle that presented in seven years.
They preferred the cycle to settling down in one locality because of their
farming method is known as “slash and burn.” The movement was mainly influenced
by political atmosphere, economic problems and many other social pressures in
their native home. The hilltop society has been able to maintain its ancestral
cultural aspects trough beliefs, rituals, architecture, and their dressing.
As of 2008, the population of the Karen
community was approximately 438,450 being the highest among the nine hill
tribes. The number of Kayan members within the Karen tribe is about 40,000 people
(Dao). The Padaung sub-group is believed to have
originated from the Kaya state Burma in the mid to late nineteen hundred (the
1900s) making the refugees of political instability to Thailand. The sub-group
belongs to a Karen sub-group known as the Karenni, one that is still fighting
for independence in Burma. The Padaung sub-group in their native land occupied
the central Burma even before the Burmese arrived originating from the north.
The Padaung people with the ancient Mon farmed in the Salween and the Irrawaddy
valleys where they built their different civilization before they were
disrupted by the arrival of the Burmese (Dao).
It is believed that the Karen tribe
preferred to stay in isolation in the past, where they lived at mid-levels
approximately between 500 and 1800 meters above the sea level. The preference,
however, seems to have changed over the past few decades where they have been
seen to settle at lower altitudes of about 500 meters above the sea level. The
reason behind this preference would be exposure to tourists considering that
the Thailand government markets them as a tourism product especially the long
neck Karen. The choice of location makes it easy for visitors to travel to
their villages and at the same time opens new opportunities for development for
the entire community. It also allows the expansion of modern facilities to
reach the community (Kaewnuch 82). Due to their
prior understanding of farming, the Karen community is familiar with the
rotation method of farming which is helpful in maintaining the fertility of the
soil which they rely on as they are farmers.
Economic Activities of
the Karen tribe
The tribe’s primary economic activity is
farming where they practice as mentioned earlier “slash and burn” agriculture.
The slash and burn involve clearing trees and vegetation on the land in
question then burning the undergrowth. The process of burning the plant is
efficient as it adds minerals to the soil that are helpful in the growth of
crops but at the same time, they have a negative aspect. The downside is that
in the process of burning the vegetation, lots of minerals are lost which are
essential in growing crops and also in holding the soil together. The result of
this is soil erosion which on the other hand renders the soil infertile leading
to the lands being productive just for a short while. Their main crop is rice,
but they also plant other farm products in different seasons. They include;
chili, eggplant, corn, pumpkin, and other vegetables. The Karen community does
not practice cash crop farming but rather subsistence agriculture where they
produce farm products meant for domestic consumption only. The community also
rears livestock commonly chicken, pigs, and cattle or elephants for the wealthy
people in the tribe for ceremonial purposes (Kaewnuch 83).
Due to the problems that are associated
with farming like land infertility, the occupation of most of the members of
the tribe is changing. Many individuals plant vegetables to sell in the large
cities of Thailand due to the need to increase income. Other than this, more
and more people have migrated to the towns of Thailand in search of employment.
Most of the people migrating to the major cities take positions as waiters,
waitresses, traditional performance and many other occupations. The change has
been influenced by tourism which has taken up most of the community’s time. In
the past, the society used to raise elephants, cows, and buffalos for
agricultural and ceremonial purposes but this has changed as they are reared
for the purpose of tourism. For example, the elephants are used for tours in
the local villages hence attracting more tourists. Other hospitality oriented
occupations include weaving. The women of this tribe have mastered the art of
weaving where most of them are open to teaching the tourists who visit them at
a fee. Men on the other hand instead of hunting like it used to be in the past
offer demonstration on how to make Karen tribe tea and coffee for the tourists
who visit the village (Kaewnuch 84).
They do this hoping that the visitors
would be pleased and would purchase the packets of Karen tea and coffee beans.
Tourism has sparked a new light in the village as owners of shops in the major
cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai come to Karen villages to purchase touristic
products like clothes and handmade products which are in turn sold to tourist
and even the people in these cities. The agricultural aspect of the village has
decreased as many villagers rent places where they sell products like food,
handicrafts, clothes, jewelry and even staging performances for tourists in
famous shopping centers like Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. Men also craft unique
tobacco pipes, make musical instruments and even animal bells which earn them
income (Kaewnuch 84).
The villages and homes
of the Karen community
The Karen tribe constructs their houses
using bamboo raised on stilts. The houses are made of bamboo stilts on the
floor and walls and roofed with grass or thatch. The houses have a partially covered,
spacious balcony which is used for various purposes depending on the owner.
Most people use the space for cooking, weaving, preparing food, a place to chat
with friends and even a space to accommodate overnight guests. The house can be
one room or partitioned to be two where one room is used as a sleeping
compartment and the other room as a living room. The living room is also where
the fireplace is located surrounded by the dishes and other cooking utensils.
Over the fire, there is always a suspended woven bamboo tray which is used for
drying and storing items. The fire in is used for various purposes and the
unique is that it is employed in the prevention of mosquitoes which gives the
whole family protection from malaria infection. The livestock lives under the
bamboo house, but they may stay under the same roof with the members of the family
In the past, the mother would train her
daughter on being a housewife where training would be on duties that she was
supposed to perform when she becomes a wife. The duties include cooking,
fetching water, babysitting, carrying vegetables and wood. Additionally, the
girls were supposed to learn how to mortar rice, yarn spinning, weaving and
many other duties. A boy, on the other hand, would learn farm, participate in
ceremonies, raise animals, carpentry, blacksmith and even hunt all this with
his father or with an elder brother. The traditional life of the Karen people
has however taken a new turn, especially with the younger generation. Children
attend the school where they receive the education just like the Thailand
children (Kaewnuch 83). Other than this, more
individuals from the Karen community are seen in cities like Chiang Mai selling
their handmade crafts while others are working in the hospitality industry
holding various positions from restaurants to tour guiding a private
individuals or freelancers.
The nuclear family is the smallest
social unit in the Karen tribe. The Karen household is made up of a husband,
wife, and the unmarried children; however, a young couple may stay at the
wife’s home for the first three years of their marriage before they can build
their home. When the decision-making time comes in the family, the husband and
wife are equal parties. Therefore they consult each other. The husband,
however, plays a stronger role in the public. A village is considered to be the
largest social unit by the Karen tribe where the headman controls it. The
headman is seen as the community political leader and is recognized by the government
of northern Thailand. The Karen tribe does not recognize the headman as their
leader, and their respects are to their elders and the ancestors. The position,
therefore, conflicts with the Thai government and not most people like holding
the position of a headman as it might be difficult to carry out duties
requested by the Thai authority and at the same time remain a good Karen (Kaewnuch 85-86). The Karen community exercises very
high levels of democracy where everyone is at liberty to participate in the
decision making; however, it is men who talk. The role a headman plays has
changed over the past few years as he not only delivers the issues raised by
the Karen community to the government but he also alias with the government
where he introduces the village to high standards of living.
Traditionally, unmarried girls used to
wear a white V-necked blouse and a plain black skirt while married women would
put on skirts and blouses in bold colors like blue and red. The dressing code
would help one differentiate the various sub-groups as people from the same
sub-group would tend to have a similar preference, therefore, patterns that
would look alike. The Pwo Karen
sub-group would tend to wear more colorful clothes than any other group within
Karen tribe. The Kayan, on the other hand, were unique as they wore brass coils
around their neck, arms to the length of the elbows and the legs from the ankle
to the knees. A huge number of individuals from the Karen community have
changed their dressing code as they are wearing jeans, except the Kayan women
who maintain on wearing the coils up to date. The Karen women also carry
shoulder bags made of cotton. The dressing code for the Karen community would
have disappeared due to the increased contact with the external world, but due
to tourism they have been reserved and can be seen in various tourist and
traditional markets in Bangkok and other major cities (Kaewnuch
The traditional meal for a Karen just
like most of the rest of Asia is based on rice, spices, and eggs. The main
ingredients of the meal are based on spice and seasoning; therefore, they have
an adamant smell. The favorite dish for a Karen is known as the Talapaw whose
ingredients are crushed rice, green beans, fish sauce, hot pepper and spices.
They do not eat their domestic animals like monkeys, cat and dogs unlike other
groups of people in Asia like India and some parts of China. Other foods
include chicken, fish, and pork while fruits include bananas, papayas, mangos,
longan, and lychee. Exposure to the outside world has led to some changes in
the way the Karen community eats. Some of the changes include eating using
spoons instead of hands, drinking using cups rather than banana leaves or
bamboo tubes and cooking using gas stoves instead of traditional fire. The
community is more open to new foods such as "pork on hot crater" and
Chinese fondue. Although various things have changed, members of the Karen
tribe remain the same when it comes to food preference as they like spicy foods
Custom, Beliefs and
moral code of the Karen tribe
The Karen group has three important
rituals that take place every year, and they include the New Year which takes
place in February, marriage and Eating the New Rice ceremony. The tribe refers
the New Year ceremony as “Nee Saw Coe” and which takes place every year and is
crucial to the community. The tribe believes that when they attend the
ceremony, the coming year will have better things in store for them. The
ceremony happens at the end of the harvest season, and it usually starts at the
eve of the New Year. The high priest (also known as “He Ko”), conducts the
ceremony by gathering all family leaders and are supposed to be men. Each
family leader is expected to present a bottle of alcohol to the priest. The
priest then takes the bottle from the leader who arrive first takes a sip then
passes it to everyone in the ceremony. The remaining content of the alcohol is
given back to the priest who then pours the content while reciting a prayer
asking for a blessing for the owner of the bottle and the family. The ritual
takes place for every bottle presented, therefore; it may end up taking the
whole night. In the morning everyone is supposed to gather around the
traditional food stand full or four or more small dishes (Kan Tok). The
children are given a white rope by their elders where they are to wrap it
around their wrist. The rope is believed to represent all good things and that
it will prevent any bad happenings for the children. The marriage ritual takes
place from April to May. The Eating the New Rice ceremony takes place in August
and shows the importance of survival (Kaewnuch 86-87).
Originally all Karen people were
Animists before the arrival of either Christianity or Buddhism. Most of them of
them now Animists and Buddhists while 20% of the population being Christians.
The He Ko is the most important person in the Karen Traditional setup for the
Animists. The priest inherits the position from his father, who inherited from
his father therefore following a lineage. The followers of the Animistic
beliefs consult the priest at all times for advice from the gods. The priest
then determines the will of the spirits by casting lots while consulting
divining paraphernalia like bones from chickens and pigs, bamboo, wood, rice
seed or ashes from a ritual fire (Kaewnuch 87).
A family is an important aspect of the
people from the Karen tribe; therefore their morals revolve around the family.
The Karen people believe that unmarried couple should not touch each other not
unless they intend to get married to one another. Premature sexual relations
are not allowed and are considered immoral hence; anyone found to have violated
the code is forced to marry in isolation and no young people are allowed to
attend the wedding. The Karen people do not condone divorce after marriage
hence the community considers adultery a major taboo (Kaewnuch
Like any other community, the Karen
people have myths and misconceptions that they believe. Among these beliefs is
that a woman is not supposed to eat directly from the pot. The woman is also
not expected to step across a broom since they believe that this may cause the
woman to have difficulties in giving birth. Another myth is that pushing a
child with a broom may render them unhealthy or even unintelligent, therefore
it is not allowed. Finally, a child is not supposed to be given the head of a
chicken or the legs as they will not listen to what the parents tell then and
the may end up becoming naughty (Kaewnuch 87-88).
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