After our long days in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Rai to continue our journey and visit Karen Long Neck Hilltribe, who are known for boasting spiral brass coils around their necks. There are different schools of thought on this particular tribe; some believe it is equivalent to a sort of circus show where children are made to “perform” for the crowd and some think that purchasing the handmade goods at the village may actually help the people here to survive.
The Karen are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills on the Myanmar (formerly Burma) side of the Thai border. Best recognized for their elongated necks, the Karen women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. While the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers, the women have a rich history of crafting from wood carving to weaving. Overall the Long Neck Tribes live a rugged, tedious, and simple lifestyle, but the fruits of their labor are colorful and very lively.
We arrived in the morning and walked past a few bamboo homes on our way to the heart of the tribe.
There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest. Fleeing to Thailand was a very safe choice for many, but the ones that came are largely illegal immigrants and do not have options for gaining Thai citizenship. While things are much better for the Karen that have fled from Burma, the lack of opportunity for the Long Necks has confined the groups to small pockets separate from most of modern Thailand. On one hand it is beautiful they have been able to keep their traditions alive and on the other it is a struggle to balance the new world with the old.
While it may seem that the Karen women have unusually long necks, their traditional brass rings actually smash their shoulders and rib cages down just making their necks seem longer. The brass rings, which are also around their shins and arms, are made out of one solid pieces of metal making them quite heavy. Each time a woman adds a ring to her neck she is fitted with a new neck piece that coils around and around.
The mother and daughter wearing spiral brass coils at Karen Hilltribe
The biggest reason why the Karen women put themselves though the neck lengthening routine is simply tradition. While there are some of the women that need to stick with the tradition to make money since they are refugees, there are some of the woman that do it just to hold onto their heritage. In the early days of the Long Necks, the practice of the brass rings was started not just for beauty, but also to protect against tigers and in some cases even just because the village leader said he preferred it. Based on our guide version aside tradition, Karen women who have rings on their neck are those who born on Wednesday and must be full moon, they consider it as a good luck for the family and the whole tribe.
Today many of the young Karen women are breaking with tradition and it is estimated that the neck lengthening practice only has a few generations of life left. When we visited the Karen many of the young women still had rings, some real ones (I can tell) and maybe some are just for the sake of livelihood.
Children at Karen Hilltribe
Old Karen woman
Wearing brass rings covering forearms and shins
Karen women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which is done on a backstrap loom. And, even now, you can witness them practicing their impressive craft.
Not all the women had coils around their necks, some where from the ‘Big Ear’ tribe and had large silver gauges in their ears instead. Just like this 9 year old girl whose very busy when we saw her doing her own craft.
After our long day visit to Karen Hilltribe, we went straight to Mae Sai border the northernmost part of Chiang Rai to cross Myanmar some 2-3 hours drive from Mae Rim where the Karen Village is located.
Most people get there by public bus from the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Buses are safe, inexpensive and quite frequent with various 'classes' costing between 160 - 350 baht for the five hour trip from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station (via Chiang Rai) or the approximately two hour trip from Chiang Rai's two public bus stations. Book in advance if possible as the buses fill up quite quickly.
The town of Tachileik (or Tachilek) is in an area of Eastern Burma known as the Shan State and the border to North Thailand. The first thing to grab your attention are the hordes of friendly, but high pressure, tour guides and sellers offering extremely cheap counterfeit goods ranging from Marlboro to Viagra, of varying quality and safety. They have a good understanding of English apart from the word NO. If you do buy anything, be mindful of Thailand's Customs regulations when returning. Checks are rare but they can confiscate any counterfeit goods if they have a mind to, and certain drugs (e.g., diazepam) are illegal in Thailand without a prescription (even though it's available 'under the counter' at certain Thai pharmacies).
There are some interesting temples you can visit while you're there. Shwe Dagon Pagoda is on a hillside, within walking distance (although it's quite a steep hill to climb), and affords good views across Tachileik and the Burmese hills on one side and Mae Sai on the other. Otherwise just walk around the town and soak up the uniquely Burmese atmosphere. The sellers all congregate at the entry point so, having left them behind, you'll be left in relative peace to explore the town at your leisure on foot.
Colorful and beautifully crafted scented soap outside Opeum Museum, very famous in Thailand.
Wat Rong Khun perhaps better known to foreigners as the White Temple, is a contemporary, unconventional, privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. This bizarre-looking white temple located about five km south of Chiang Rai City is the brainchild of Chiang Rai-born visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat. He brings an unconventional approach to temple architecture, fusing elements from his own imagination (white, not gold, as a pure colour to embody the sacredness of temples) with orthodox Buddhist teachings about heaven, hell, karma and earthly sins.
The temple is filled with Buddhist symbolisms, from its layout, architecture, all the way to the ornate reliefs and mirror decorations. You can only enter the ubosot (main chapel) from the front, via the narrow bridge that passes over a pool of upturned, beseeching hands representing suffering souls in hell. From here, there’s no turning back, as the only way is to ascend ‘heavenwards’ to through the pathway guarded over by demons to the ubosot.
Wat Rong Khun also know as the White Temple
Inside, two Buddha images seem to be floating on a lotus pedestal, set against elaborately painted murals in various hues of gold and other colours. Rather than traditional characters, Chalermchai uses icons from modern culture, such as spaceships, superman, and even Neo from the Matrix movie to tell the stories of the Buddha’s life and his teachings on these murals, creating a rather striking – and lasting – impression upon visitors.
In a way, Wat Rong Khun is similar to Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcolona. When Chalermchai first conceived the idea of building the wat, he laid out a great grand plan for its design and construction but, like Gaudi’s work, it will never be completed. Constructed in 1998, the temple’s main chapel won’t be completely finished (with all decorations and murals) before 2020, let alone the other structures surrounding it. When completed, Wat Rong Khun will have a total of nine structures fully decorated with the swirly reliefs and mirrors that the wat has become famous for.
My personal take as a photographer, it's good to see this place once but will never go back here with my camera again, to me this is like a Disney of the North Thailand but if you're with families or friends this place is a paradise for selfies and FB profile pics. =)