Karen Hill Tribe are the largest of all the minority groups in Thailand comprising in total of around 300 thousand. They are divided into three main assemblages. The Red Karen or Kayah is one such group. Another is the Black Karen or Pgo and the third one is the White Karen or Sgaw. While some tribes continue to practice animistic and Buddhist teachings, many have converted to Christianity.
The Karen can easily be recognized by their woven v-neck tunics and turbans of diverse natural colours. Women who are not married will wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. You will find the Karen engaging in agriculture such as tea and rice cultivation in the lowland areas. This tribe is environmentally conscious and will often be seen practicing crop rotation to help preserve the forests. The ones staying at home attending the children are experts in the art of weaving.
From a very tender age, young Karen girls start to wear brass rings around their necks, arms and legs. Once they reach adulthood, the rings around their necks can easily add up to some 26 loops all in all while weighing over two kilograms. That's a heck of a lot of heavy metal to carry around for the rest of their lives.
And we are only talking about the metal on their necks! Now what about all the hardware on their arms and legs. These girls would certainly have a difficult time trying to go through customs at any airport. Removing the rings could seriously delay flights so be prepared for a long haul should one want to board your plane.
Okay! I know that I am just fooling around here but it makes you think that some of us are lucky enough to be able to travel worldwide with modern transport and not have to trek around on foot most of the time. Can you imagine having to live in a remote village or worse still, a refugee camp. I think not.
The big question often asked is whether the rings can ever be removed without severe neck injuries or will the necks of these ladies simply snap. I should imagine this would depend entirely on individual circumstances. One would have to consider how long the rings have been on. Another would be, how long the neck has grown or perhaps how sturdy the neck is once the rings are removed.
Some say that the rings cannot be removed as the ladies would no longer be able to hold their heads high. Well some young girls seen in the villages have had their hardware removed and you can clearly see their elongated necks yet somehow they seem to be perfectly happy at play. Their are many disputes regarding this type of practice but you have to understand it is their custom.
According to a Ripley's believe-it-or-not documentary film, one Karen women had her rings removed only to complain of intense pain and immediately asked to have her rings re-attached. It is said that the wearing of brass rings helps to project their tribal identity. Long Neck Women or Giraffe Women are some of the words often used to describe these elongated necks of the Karen Hill Tribe.
Travel 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Mae Hong Son towards the Burmese border in northern Thailand and you will reach the village of Ban Nai Soi. At some point along the way you will pass a Thai check point but please don't be alarmed as the army are only on the lookout for drug smugglers and the occasional Burmese military. I sure hope that you are neither. Anyway Thai's are very well known for their hospitality and this army will surely give you a smile as they wave you on.
This well travelled road is fairly reasonably for most of the way. A little further up from the village you will come across the Paduang Karen Tribe refugee camp. Many tourists arrive here to get a glimpse into the lives of these fascinating long neck dwellers. Taking photographs will probably be the order of the day here.
The area around the refugee village is a hive of activity with farmers tending to their fields, women in the village helping men construct new roofs for their huts, adolescents studying under their homes and little old ladies carrying their daily pickings in wicker baskets on their heads along a stretch of dirt and dusty road.