Perched on a chair behind a table littered with souvenirs, the young hill-tribe woman has one foot in the past and the other in the future.
Peering down beyond the pile of thick brass rings that encircle her long neck, she browses the internet on her smart phone.
Amid a jungle-shrouded village in the wild mountains of northern Thailand, she is engaged with social media.
On her right side are two young girls, about eight or nine years old, both wearing what seem to be lightweight, perhaps plastic neck rings which are more costume than culture. On older woman has a startlingly long neck adorned by 20 heavy brass rings. The rings are very heavy, with some sets weighing up to 5kg.
The women are members of the Karen ethnic hill tribes of northern Thailand and represent the last vestiges of a tradition that is eroding almost as swiftly as technology is encroaching on their isolated hamlet.
Where the Karen women once were proud of their long-necked appearance, many of the younger generations now see the custom as isolating and embarrassing.
Over the past decade, the once strictly enforced tradition has been dying out. Young Karen women are no longer pressured to adopt it and, as a result, few choose to do so.
Previous generations of Karen girls began wearing them about the age of five or six, gradually increasing the number as they got older.
Not any more. Apparently, like children the world over, the Karen girls just want to fit in and look like all the other kids at school and on the TV.
Some compromise by wearing the light, costume-style rings while working in souvenir stalls catering to tourists.
During my visit to Ban Huay Sua Thao village, about 20 minutes from Mae Hong Son town, visitors were friendly and respectful towards the villagers who happily posed for photos.
Tourists pay about $9 to enter the village and many then purchase scarves, ornaments, musical instruments and other mementos sold by the amiable Karen people.
These hill tribes are made up of Burmese refugees and their villages are scattered along the edge of Thailand’s north-western border with Myanmar.
The Karen villages may be touristy, but they are also fascinating. Perhaps the reason some travellers find the experience jarring is that Mae Hong Son is an otherwise very authentic place, unspoilt by the visitors who swarm the countryside near northern Thailand’s most popular city, Chiang Mai.
Mae Hong Son’s isolation has shielded it from the sort of tourism trade that drowns towns closer to Chiang Mai, such as the hippy enclave of Pai.
Mae Hong Son, a quaint town which is the capital of the Thai province of the same name, is more than five hours from Chiang Mai by bus.
There are a few signs of tourism creeping in - a handful of Western-style bars and restaurants, for example. But, by and large, it is a pure northern Thai town.
While the main attraction of the area is its gorgeous, untamed countryside, the town itself is charming. At its core is a tiny lake bordered by Wat Chong Kham and its glimmering golden mirage.
Here, by the lakeside, are two shops that rent scooters - the best means by which to explore Mae Hong Son’s beguiling landscape.
After exchanging about $8 a day for the keys to a new Honda scooter, you can zoom along the town’s main street which is lined with inexpensive restaurants serving delicious northern Thai specialties such as the creamy curry noodle soup, khao soi.
Foodies will also adore the daily food market which sets up in a carpark near the town library on the main road. Pork kebabs, roasted chicken, spicy papaya salad, myriad varieties of noodle soup and Burmese-influenced dishes are high in quality but low in price.
With both your body and scooter fuelled, wind your way up the steep road which begins alongside this market to the crest of Doi Kong Mu hill. From this lofty perch, the views are enchanting. Looking past the township to the east, you can see the verdant and pristine Namtok Mae Surin National Park.
Through the Mae Hong Son Valley to the south is a winding mountain road which leads to hot springs, elephant camps and countless dramatic lookout points.
Northwards is the twisting path back to Pai and Chiang Mai through some of northern Thailand’s most stunning scenery.
Behind, to the west, is the nearby Burmese border and, somewhere amid the dense jungle, the tiny Karen villages.
The vistas are almost enough to distract you from the hilltop’s crowning feature, the stunning Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. About 150 years old, it is an icon of the Mae Hong Son region.
Its Burmese-style chedis reflect the confluence of cultures that exist in Mae Hong Son, where Thai, Burmese and unique hill-tribe people live together in an environment as lush and spectacular as any in Asia.
- Mae Hong Son town is about 250km by road from Chiang Mai. Mini-vans are the quickest way to reach the town and dozens depart each day from Chiang Mai, first passing through Pai.
- Namtok Mae Surin National Park flanks Mae Hong Son town and has jungle, hills and waterfalls. Day tours can be organised from the town or you can explore it independently on a scooter.
- Mae Hong Son town is the midway point on the popular Mae Hong Son Loop which starts and finishes in Chiang Mai, traversing the beautiful, remote countryside through Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang.
Published under license from Well Travelled