CULTURE VILLAGE VISIT | Sharon Henry
For a tiny sip of ethnic Asian culture, the Baan Tong Luang tourism village 30 minutes outside Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand offers a sweet concoction. It’s like stepping into a National Geographic magazine featuring long neck ladies, bamboo huts and tribal costumes.
We arrive late morning when the sun is already high and the ground dusty. Stilt structures stand before us, topped with teak-leaf thatched roofs. Women are sitting underneath wearing traditional costume; crafts and trinkets spread out around them all for sale in an array of colours.
Bann Tong Luang is an eco-agricultural village constructed for tourists’ convenience. Previously meeting these remote tribes people would have been a much more difficult exercise.
The village comprises of five hill and mountain tribes; Lahu, Hmong, Palong, White Karen and the Long Neck Karen also known as Paduang. The tribes are mainly refugees who fled to Thailand from the neighbouring borders of Myanmar (Burma) or Laos.
The layout is like a craft market with stalls displaying souvenirs, many made locally, many that can be found in regular Thai street markets. We walk the ‘street’ stopping to admire the handicrafts and take photos. Everyone seems genuinely friendly, easily smiling for the camera even inviting us to sit and take photos with them.
Created in 2005, the aim of the village is to preserve the traditional lifestyles and agricultural methods of the hill and mountain tribes. ‘Culture villages’ such as these provide a source of income through the sale of crafts.
The village is wholly ‘manned’ by women except for an elderly man displaying ace marksmanship with a homemade crossbow. Fancying myself a bit of a ‘Katniss Everdeen’ I accept his offer and have a go. Carefully taking aim I hit the target but miss the bullseye.
The crossbows are for sale, but a major deterrent must be the inevitable explanations to stony faced immigration officers.
I get chatting to a lady about her patchwork and embroidery linen which beautifully illustrates the harvesting of crops. Another shows a landscape of animals drinking at a river. A masterful display of needlework.
Batik cloths are also for sale. The designs are drawn freehand and dyed using traditional waxing methods onto hemp material.
Although the tribes live as a collective community the village is separated into compounds by rice paddy fields.
We meet the Karen Long Neck tribe next. These ladies take jewellery wearing to another level. Smiling serenely, their necks are adorned with shiny brass coils, (some up to 23 turns) I can’t help but wonder if they are comfortable. The tribe perceives elongated necks as a sign of beauty. They invite me to try on a half collar for a photo op and to feel the weight; it’s pretty heavy. I imagine also quite confining, not to mention sweaty and itchy.
The brass neckwear is a solid spiral of coils, (not individual rings) giving the illusion of a stretched neck. But actually, the elongated neck comes from the lowered collarbones that have been pushed down and deformed over time from pressure and weight of the heavy coils.
The coils are also part of their cultural identity and there’s a story they provide protection from tiger attacks. Girls start wearing rings from as young as five. However, I have read that more and more of the younger generation decide against the coils in order to better integrate into modern society.
Most of the long neck ladies are stationed at wooden looms weaving scarves in their traditional method. Curtains of finished scarves flutter in the feeble breeze.
A young girl beckons me to sit and watch whilst she expertly works the loom. She tells me in limited English it takes three days to complete an item. A skill she learned aged seven, she’s now 12 and wears a 13-coil neckpiece.
The ‘long ears’ ladies are the Kayaw, a sub tribe of Karen Padaung. They believe the ears are the most sensitive part of the body and long ears enhances beauty. The practice is known as ‘loaded ears,’ a tradition where ear lobes are stretched over time by large heavy rings.
I am surprised to see the cross of a Christian church at the top of the hill and end of the village. St Nicholas (the Wonderworker) was built for tribes who were converted to Christianity by visiting missionaries over the past decades.
We enjoyed our time at the village, the residents were welcoming and charming and not pushy with sales, even though it seemed a quiet day with few other tourists. Perhaps the pricey 500 baht (£10.50) entrance fee is a tad off putting.
The experience is ethnic but some question if it’s ethical. Like most debates there are two sides to the coin and like many other cultures these hill and mountain tribes are adapting to a changing world. This is an ‘exhibition village’ with one principal goal in mind – tourism. On the flip side it also preserves cultural traditions and lifestyles and provides an income. Taken at face value, it is a privilege and a pleasure to meet these fascinating tribes people.