A Guest Post by The Unlikely Pilgrim (aka Therese O'Beirne) - Thank you Therese.
The women I meet around the world never cease to amaze me.
Recently I stumbled upon this small Red Karen (Kayan) village a short 15 km drive or 30 minute drive from Mae Hong Son. This is one of the original “Long Neck” villages in the area. Kayan people have been refugees in Thailand for the last 20 years following civil unrest and persecution in Myanmar (Burma).
The women of this region are unique, given the brass coil they adorn around their necks from a young age. This practice of neck rings can also be found in African tribes. The neck rings create an illusion of an elongated neck which is the original beauty, however it is the collarbone and ribs that get pushed down that create the appearance of a longer neck.
To visit or not to visit, that is the question, it’s up to you. I spoke to a local woman, Majou and she gave me the history of how this village came about. Majou explained that the young girls wear the neck pieces on the weekend and evenings but take it off for school and the practice is now optional rather than a mandatory custom. Yet many of the women choose to wear the coils as they are proud of their heritage and believe it makes them more beautiful. The brass contraptions increase in length dependant on the age of the woman and some older village women wear coils that weigh up to 6kg.
I tried on the tourist version which is more like a cuff than a coil and it was heavy and hot! With temperatures reaching 35 degrees, the metal can get very uncomfortable. Majou wears a handkerchief under hers to protect her skin.
Being refugees the Red Karen people are unable to legally seek regular work so have made stalls to sell their handicrafts to survive. I witnessed another woman weaving beautiful scarves on a loom. At the bargain price of $7.50 I bought two: a black one for the BF and a gorgeous pink one for me.
The women here have an unofficial co-op that supports the town and ensures fairness for all the families. They also have products made outside of the village to stock out their stores and make it more appealing to the tourist shopper. Isn’t it sad that we need to bulk up such a simple and beautiful artisan stall with inferior products for the ‘tick a box tourist’, who would prefer the cheaper made in China version.
If you have a chance to visit a Red Karen Hill Tribe village, do it. Lots of forums suggest that it is in poor taste to do so and disrespectful, yet when I asked the women of this village they encourage and welcome tourism.
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