Saturday, February 07, 2009

Karen Longnecks

We take a dirt track into the hills of Northern Thailand to visit the Karen Longneck hill tribe. The Karens are refugees from Burma, the Longnecks a smaller off-shoot of the tribe have been registered in Thailand as refugees for about 5 years, there are 700 Longnecks but many more Karen are in various refugee camps in the area.

On the same day nearby Angelina Jolie was making a return visit to another camp in her capacity as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.

The Longnecks started wearing rings around their neck to protect them from tiger attacks after a particularly savage incident killed several tribespeople. Young girls get their first rings at about 5 or 6. The rings are made from brass and are really heavy, they do not actually elongate the necks but they make them look longer by pushing down on the spine and the rib cage lowering the shoulders. Once they start to wear the rings they cannot take them off as their neck is so weakened it would be dangerous.

We pay to get into the village, we are the only visitors there and we walk slowly round past their houses with stalls set up outside where they demonstrate their art of weaving as well as passively sitting for photographs. I ask everyone before I take their photographs but it still feels a bit of a peep show because although absolutely beautiful and so photogenic their form of self mutilation is so alien it makes them very different from anything we've ever encountered before. We buy some of the weaving they actually do there and hope that is sufficient compensation for being on show - there are very limited alternatives for refugees on licence. As we leave 4 or 5 more visitors arrive to a very dignified reception.

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