A Visit to a Karen Hilltribe Village

I remember as a kid going to the Ripley’s Believe it or Not odditorium in San Antonio and seeing a wax figure of a “Giraffe Woman of Burma.” Of all the crazy, odd things to be found in a Ripley’s museum, I remember that. I kind of figured that this was something Mr. Ripley was lucky enough to see in his world travels, but I never would. I also thought that this practice must have died out a long time ago. Surely women would not still do something like that to themselves nowadays.

Wax figure of a Burmese woman at a Ripley’s museum

Several years later, I became addicted to National Geographic magazine. I came across an article where not only did researches talk to and take pictures of women who still practice this art, but they actually took x-rays of a Longneck woman to see if her neck was actually elongated by wearing the rings. What they found was that the neck isn’t actually any longer than any normal person, but their ribs are forced down creating the illusion that their necks are longer. Still, I never thought I would see this for myself.

X-ray of Longneck woman
Imagine my surprise then, when researching our Thailand trip that there were day excursions to see the Longneck Hilltribes. “How can this be?” I wondered. “I know those people are Burmese.” It turns out that, yes, the Longneck peoples (actually called Karen people) are Burmese, but they have been fleeing to places like Thailand for decades because of persecution under the unstable Burmese government. Many of the Karen people now living in Thailand are either refugees or descendants of refugees. While many people only think of the Longneck Karen, there are actually many types of Karen people with distinct histories, traditions, and dress.

This was definitely an exciting day for me and helped drive home why I live abroad. I spent a lot of my childhood dreaming of seeing the things Robert Ripley did. I don’t have to just dream about it any more.

You can see all the pictures from our trip to the Karen villages here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook and to sign up for our newsletter.