The Karen

Previous Post: Chiang Rai

Back at the resort we have some free time in which to relax before taking the bus up to the Karen village.

We increase that time by skipping the village visit.

I have mixed feelings about the Karen. Not only do they raise the usual questions of Western voyeurism and exploitation, but the impacts here are more obvious and – I believe – more negative than usual. I say that because the group of Karen we would visit are the long-neck Karen. This is the group where, beginning as children, some women wear layers of rings to lengthen their necks.

The long-neck Karen make for wonderful, exotic photos. The kind of photos I would really, really like to take. But the long-neck Karen exist today solely because of Western tourists.

The use of neck rings, which has to be uncomfortable if not actually unhealthy for the women who undergo it, had all but died out until tourists discovered it. The practice was revived only because it could bring in tourist dollars.

Perhaps my objection is hypocritical. After all, I have always been supportive of efforts to keep textile, costume, handicraft, and dining traditions alive. I was ok with visiting and spending money at the Akha and Yao villages. But I see a line between making money from sale of traditional items and making money through practices that are unhealthy, painful, or needlessly dangerous. I’m not always sure where that line falls, but a visit to the long-neck Karen seems to be on the wrong side of it.

As much as I want the pictures, I can’t bring myself to participate in this.

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