Pioche Native Shares Observations of Thailand’s Northern Hill Tribes

By Chelsey Wadsworth

Chiang Mai, Thailand. About an hour north of the city by bus is a village in the jungle on the mountain, where live a few of Thailand’s hilltribes. Led by our tour guide, Wai, our group meandered along a path lined with stalls, where local women sold handmade crafts and wove traditional textiles, while their small children played together. They are no strangers to tourists. They didn’t bat an eye when we all began snapping pictures of them. Some, particularly the children, even posed. One small girl greeted Wai and gave him high fives.

The women we met were mostly from the Longneck Karen tribe, but there were a few who were Longear Karen, Yao or Akha. The Longneck women sported heavy gold rings rings around their necks. They began this tradition long ago, when the men would go out to work on their farms, leaving the women vulnerable to tiger attacks, so they wore the rings on their necks and legs for protection. Nowadays, they do it more to identify themselves as belonging to their tribe. As Wai explained to us, although the hilltribes live in the same village together, they don’t intermarry.

Girls start wearing rings on their necks as young as two, although when they are that young they wear some that can come on and off. They don’t wear the permanent ones until they get older. The heavy rings weigh the shoulders down, stretching the neck and leaving part of it exposed, so every so often they may have to add more layers. You may be asking, how do they sleep with the heavy rings on their necks? The answer: they lie down, just like you do. They seem to have very little trouble sleeping, even with tourists wandering around their village.

Some Karen girls may get sent to school so they can earn money. These don’t wear rings.

Unlike the Longneck tribe, the Longear Karen women do not wear rings. However, they do wear large spools in their ears, which stretch their earlobes, as a sign of beauty. The Yao and Akha people also have unique looks. All were very friendly and eager to sell us souvenirs such as handwoven scarves.

The hilltribe people originally came from Burma. They speak Burmese, and enough English to communicate with tourists. The Thai government does not consider them to be Thai. Whatever their nationality, I feel blessed to have met them.

Chelsey Wadsworth, 26, grew up in Pioche and loves having adventures. Three years ago she did an internship teaching English in China and wanted to get out even more to experience other places and cultures. She’s always wanted to do a study abroad, so now that she’s back in school, she will be studying in Khon Kaen, Thailand and recently spent a week in Chiang Mai.