Northern Thailand Day 7 – Mae Hong Son

Breakfast on the wooden terrace looking onto the fresh green paddy fields, the sun shining and insects buzzing around. You could stay here all day, just relaxing, writing, enjoying the weather, the views and the general ambience. Or you could hop on a scooter and ride around the area and find some long-necked tribes.

Choosing the latter simply because we didn’t have the luxury of time, Vero and I rode to the little airport first, where we bought a flight to Chiang Mai the next morning. Then I filled up the tank at the gas station and we were off, buzzing down the winding, deserted country roads on one of the most beautiful bike rides I’ve ever done, all the way to the longneck village of Karen, through woods and across rivers (which weren’t east to cross on a motorbike, though it didn’t seem to deter whole families crammed on a scooter from riding across, nor villagers from wading across in the waist deep water), past rice fields, temples and villages; beautiful, sun-drenched scenes to live long in the memory.

We reached the longneck village, a living, breathing village, despite a vague hint of the fascinating long-necked people having to stretch their necks to preserve income from tourism rather than preserve the culture. We strolled through the village, un-hassled, and took our time to explore. It wasn’t a big village. No more than about 30 bamboo-woven grass huts, some on stilts. People milled around carrying out chores. Kids played in the dirt street. Not everyone had a long neck. Those that did were all women, mainly older women, who had set up little stalls selling hand-made scarves and other little trinkets, clearly aimed at any tourists passing through. One old woman with many rings around her neck stood in front of a weathered photo of what must of been her mother, also a longneck. A huge rainstorm forced us to take shelter under a stall’s canopy. There, we got talking to a woman called Ploy who used to be a longneck. Ploy too, used to wear the brass rings around her neck, one being added every year to stretch the neck (although what really happens is they squash the vertebrae and the collar bones by pushing down on the clavicle). Ploy told us she used to get terrible headaches all the time, so decided to break with tradition and take off the rings, something her parents didn’t agree with. As she’d been wearing the rings (or coil) for 5 years (which means she’d never taken them off – longnecks sleep and bathe with their coils on and never take them off), the muscles in her neck had gone. She said it took 6 weeks to be able to move her head with any speed from side to side. So, she had a choice. Or was incredibly strong-willed. Hers was an interesting story. Ploy was born in a refugee camp on the Burmese border, and is indeed Burmese she claims. She moved to this village at 5 years old. She doesn’t know how old she is , her parents don’t know either, but they can tell her the month she was born. She guesses she is about 26.

Ploy told me of some traditions of the village, how they must choose ‘good trees’ for building new homes or for firewood, and this is done by reading chicken bones, something the elders can do but the young are not interested in learning, meaning part of the village culture is sadly dying out, but young people have some exposure to the outside world here, and must want to move with the times. Ploy said they have 3 villagers nearby, and they get together to celebrate special occasions. There are 100 people in Ploy’s village. The young go off to the other villages to watch TV sometimes. There are 3 TVs in the villages,and that’s it by way of entertainment. As she spoke, a longneck was sifting a bucket of crickets, which would later be fried and eaten as snacks, the dark skies and rain silhouetting her so she appeared in the murky light as a giraffe standing upright. It was all a bit surreal, here in northern Thailand in this little village, surrounded by these isolated peoples. Ploy’s husband and child were with her, relaxing and smiling at us. Ploy had an ambition – or was it more of a dream – to leave and go to Australia, but she couldn’t leave her parents. That’s not to say nobody left the village – the old village chief upped sticks to Finland a few years ago. The new chief is a traditionalist, which means the culture of the longnecks will be preserved, and it is unlikely any new television sets will be ordered. His house was across from the stall, but he wasn’t home. It had been fascinating talking to Ploy, but we had to leave now the rains had gone.

We rode back through the lush fields and went to a lovely temple and saw a group of school kids in traditional garb beating drums while marching to the temple and performing some kind of dance, which the boys in the group seemed slightly embarrassed about. They were excited to see us, though, and we had to pose for quite a few photos before continuing our journey.

We rode all the way to a boat station, which took a while to find, but from where you can charter a boat to another, more isolated longneck village. Nobody was at the boat shed, but after asking around a few man appeared, and one of them took us on his longtail boat 20 minutes downriver to a village of some 200 inhabitants, of which quite a number were longnecks – much more than the previous village. We stepped ashore and strode through the village, and were met by the next generation of longnecks, 2 young girls, Teresa and Maria, their earlobes expanded grotesquely by big hoops inside, gold rings around the bottom of their knees and arms too (for arm and knee rings are also a common feature of the longnecks). We saw one old colourfully-garbed longneck here with 26 rings weighing over 12 kilos! Unlike Ploy, she would probably never take them off. Women here are buried with their coils on. Legend has it the coils were used to protect the women from the bite of tigers that used to roam these parts, for tigers are supposed to go for the neck when they bite to kill. The coils are also used for beauty, and a woman with coils is indeed a grotesquely beautiful creature.

We walked to the back of the village where we saw some young men, unburdened by over 10 kg of weight around their necks, playing volleyball on the wet grass, whilst another group of village men played a game of football tennis with a thatched ball, as on-lookers smoked and chatted with one another. Then we got back on the longtail boat and sped away from this place, like nowhere else I’d ever been, past the forested mountains and lush riverbank. We got back on the bike on dry land, and went to Mae Hong Son’s quietly buzzing town for a coffee in Sunflower restaurant. We dropped the bike off, and called Gim of Gim’s resort, to pick us up from the town. Gim and his girlfriend came to pick us up, and told us of their backpacking trip around Laos on the way back. They were very friendly. We were hungry, so got them to drop us off at a restaurant near the resort, with tables set in their own private tower over a pond. We had an amazing meal of soup and fish and rice, with coconut shakes for less than 500 Baht. We returned to the resort and sat on the terrace with a beer and awaited the gentle croaking and buzzing sounds to lull us to sleep.

Author: Neil

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