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By Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

At the village entrance we are met by a woman from the Karen tribe. With a broad smile she tells us (as translated by our guide) that this is the first day of wearing her shiny new brass neck rings. She holds up her old coil of rings to show us how the sheen has worn off.

My husband Rick and I are

exploring the most northern tip of the country; having been through the south on previous visits to Thailand. The hill tribe villages are the first of several daytrips we take from our base in Chiang Rai with our petite lady guide Nui and jovial driver Sampong.

The group of small villages is home to the Lahu and Yao tribes (originally from China), the Akha (from Tibet), the Palong and Karen (from Myanmar, formerly Burma). It is fascinating to learn a bit about these five tribes, each having their own language, customs, traditional costumes, cuisine, and spiritual beliefs.

I become focused on the Karen (also called Padaung, meaning long-neck) with their out-of-the-ordinary custom of neck rings on females. Along the paths between the huts women go about their daily chores of washing dishes, laundering clothes, and weaving beautiful fabric for craft sale items. Children are at play; the girls of about five years have been fitted with their first few coils. The length is added to each year until into their twenties. An elderly woman boasts the longest coil, measuring 22 cm in length, and weighing 7 kg!

"It is a misconception that if the rings are removed the women would not be able to support their heads," Nui says. "X-rays show that the vertebrae of the neck are not stretched, but rather the weight of the coils lower the shoulder bones, which return to their natural state if the coils are removed for too long.

It is not known when this adornment was first adopted for Karen women, and the stories as to "why" vary. In northern Myanmar (where the tribe originated) tigers were a threat, and some believe the neck coils were a safeguard against a tiger going for the jugular. (I guess it was thought the men could fight tigers off.) Others say it was to keep the women from intermarrying with other tribes.

The villages where tourists pay to visit are government run projects, with the proceeds going to the welfare of the villagers for dry foods, medical care and schools. "The Karen were brought to Thailand as a tourist attraction," Nui says, "and although they have not been granted Thai citizenship, they consider living in Thailand is better than returning to the political unrest in Myanmar."

Our next excursion is to mill around the stunning Buddha statues, shops, and great restaurants of Sop Ruak. Nui proclaimed this touristy village as "the official centre" of the Golden Triangle". It is remarkable to stand on Thai soil and look out across the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers with Myanmar on the left and Laos on the right-a glimpse of the 100,000 sq km of the mountainous area in these three countries that comprise the infamous Triangle.

We visit the Opium Museum and Opium Exhibition Hall offering information on every aspect of the production, trafficking, and debilitating effects of this narcotic, along with its complex global history.

Specific to the Golden Triangle, we learn how the hill tribes were prominent players. During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, migrating tribes from China introduced papaver somniferum (botanical name of the only poppy out of 250species containing opium). This soon became a cash crop of Black Gold adding a fortune to government coffers, and the Triangle became the most extensive opium producing area of Asia, and in the world, since the 1920's.

Thailand has taken the lead to quash the growing of opium producing poppies with the government crop-substitute program which helps the hill tribes to cultivate other high-demand crops, such as tea and coffee. We leave saturated with facts, and moved by a wall of quotes by world leaders relaying their hopes of creating a drug-free world.

Thailand has always been a special place to us. The friendliness of the people, the spectacular temples, the lush terrain and our visits to the hill tribes and the Golden Triangle added to our palette of previous memories of this incredible country, fittingly known as the "Land of Smiles".

If You Go:

Chiang Rai (pop 73,000) is the capital of Chiang Rai province.

From Bangkok: Air Asia and Thai Airways operate regular flights.
Air-conditioned and non-aircon Buses run daily; duration is 11 hours to cover the 785 km from Bangkok.

Our private tour was booked thru:
Chiang Rai Universal Travel Service
Ph: 087-3020248 Fax: 053-793516
(tour reservation desk located
in Laluna Hotel & Resort, Chiang Rai)

Photos by Rick Butler

1. Old and New Neck Rings
2. Mum with Children
3. Buddha in Sop Ruak
4. Opium Museum
5. Weaver at Work
6. Sign: Golden Triangle

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