Caves, Long Necks, and Mountains

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After we left Ae Ko, we did not feel like driving for too long, so after 20 or so kilometers we found the very comfortable Cave Lodge and stopped there for the day. We visited the famous Tham Lor cave and admired the rock formations and remains of old teak coffins. Afterwards, Weronika and her mom stayed at the hotel and I took a ride into the countryside to go cave exploring.

We were now in the far north-west corner of Thailand This is where the few remaining long-necked Karen villages can be found, so we got on our motorcycles and went looking. We made a brief stop in the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son to grab a bite to eat and see a few Burmese-style temples. Our map showed us the way to the Karen village, but we still managed to get lost in the small roads. We were going to Muang Pu Keng, which was the most remote and supposedly least visited of the long-necked Karen villages. We eventually found ourselves down a small path out of sight of the main road, staring across a river into a village where we were hoping to see women with heaving brass rings on their necks.

A man fired up a long-tail canoe and came across the river to get us. After paying 250 baht per person, we were sure that this was a long-neck Karen village. We walked up the hill and stopped to chat with the women. Their necks do look freakishly long indeed! It is no illusion.

Eventually we found a man and a woman who spoke English well. He introduced himself as Ian, a retired professor from Australia and she Jini, a student doing her research for her doctorate. They had lived there for over a month and are planning on spending another half a year there studying the customs and traditions of the Kayo, Kayen, and Karenni people, who altogether make up the village.

We learned a lot from them in our brief conversation with Ian and Jini. Most interesting, of course, is the whole long neck thing. No one knows anymore where the tradition comes from. There are many theories but the leading authorities on such things, namely Jini, claim that the origins are not clear. It was not to protect their necks from tigers. Perhaps it was to keep the women from running away by weighing them down with many kilos of brass, or to make them look unattractive to men from nearby tribes.

The rings do not really lengthen the neck. They are heavy, and years of wearing them causes the shoulders and collar bones to sloop down, giving the appearance of a long neck. The vertebrae are regular, and supposedly x-rays confirm this. So the next time you hear that the Karen women cannot take the rings off or their necks would break, call them out. In fact, they do take off the neck rings occasionally for cleaning. In other, more touristy and somewhat less authentic villages (according to Jini), the women wear hollow brass rings and take them off nightly.

The three tribes are not native to Thailand. They are refugees from Burma who came here in 1984, when the Burmese government led a forced assimilation campaign of minority groups and essentially burned their villages down. They were welcomed by the Thai, but are a controversial topic as they are used to attract tourism into the country. In any case, we enjoyed our visit to the village and were very glad that Ian and Jini were able to explain to us so much in so little time.

For the rest of the day and into the early evening we continued on the road. We had many kilometers ahead of us and only one more full day of driving. We arrived in the town of Khun Yuam, where we promptly went to sleep.

The last day of driving was arguably the most pleasant. We were cutting across the Doi Inthanon national park. The road was pleasantly narrow and fantastically curvy, but paved in its entirety. The views were superb. At one point, we passed a man going the opposite way on a lumbering elephant. Along the way, we saw from the droppings every couple of kilometers that this was a long distance trip.

On this leg of the trip we had a fantastic opportunity. All along our extended Southeast Asia trip, Weronika and I contemplated climbing the highest peak of a given country. We always found an excuse not to, and so Mount Kinabalu in Malaysai and Fansipan in Vietnam remain unconquered by us. In Thailand, the peak of Doi Inthanon towers a meager 2565 meters and there is a paved road to the very peak. We have accomplished what we set out to do.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and unexciting. We stopped for the night right on the boundary of the park, and the next day got up early. We had to reach Chiang Mai and pick up our passports from the Chinese consulate before closing time. We did that, squeezed in a quick trip to the Doi Suthep temple high atop a mountain overlooking the city, and hopped into a Chiang Rai bound bus. The next day, on the 9th, we are flying out to Myanmar via Bangkok. Our time in Thailand is finished for now. We are left with pleasant memories and a fantastic taste of the Thai cuisine.

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