Imagine, at the age of five, having a brass coil wound around your neck eight times weighing 1 kilo. Each three years another three rings are added to the load. This practice continues until a woman is 25 years of age, or gets married. And once they are on, they are on. Some neck rings have been reported to weigh 20 kilograms! This unusual practice is a tradition of the Kayan hill tribe (a sub-group of the Red Karen people) based in northern Thailand. Almost all hill tribe comunities in Thailand are refugees who had fled conflict in their own countries. The Kayan tribe is no different, having fled from Burma (now Myanmar) during the civil war in the 1980s, to neighbouring Thailand.
Despite the name, the rings do not actually make the wearer’s neck longer. Instead, it pushes the shoulders and ribcage of the wearer down, making the neck look longer. I am not sure which is worse to be honest.
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Why do they do this?
In the Kayan tribe these ‘giraffe-like women’ are considered beautiful. The longer the neck, the more beautiful the woman. The rings are also a symbol of wealth and status as the coils cost money, and not every family an afford it.
There are a few theories behind the reason for wearing the rings. Ironically, one reason is that they believed it made the women less attractive and therefore less prone to kidnap by rival tribes. Another reason is supposedly that it protects them from attack from tigers, who traditionally go for the jugular.
Why you should not visit the long neck tribe and why I chose not to
Despite, what you may deem to be a cruel and painful tradition, by all accounts that I have researched, the practice does not cause the ladies too much bother. The girls say that it hurts at first, but after it becomes normal and many are only too happy to carry out their tribe’s tradition and nobody forces them to do so – they can choose for themselves.
No, this is not the reason why I chose not to visit the tribe during one of the organised tours that I did in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. My issue lies with the way this minority are treated by the Thai government.
Due to their perceived oddity and exoticism, the Kayan tribe quickly became a tourist attraction and the Thai authorities allowed them to settle in provinces close to Chiang Rai, so that tour operators could include them as a stop on their tours around the White Temple, Blue Temple, Black House and Golden Triangle. But when the Thai government realised what a money-maker these people were for their tourism, they did not allow them to leave and this attraction has often been referred to as a “human zoo”.
In 2005, the United Nations Refugee Agency offered thousands of refugees the chance to permanently resettle in countries such as New Zealand and Finland. Many of the Kayan applied and were accepted, but the Thai government refused to sign the paperwork required for them to leave the country, yet neither will they grant the Kayans full Thai citizenship. So they are trapped in a country which is not theirs and belong neither to their native country, not the country in which they now reside.
So, there is nothing for them to do but smile and dance for tourists who pay around 500-600 baht entrance fee come to gawk at their giraffe-like appearance. Many do not know the situation or back story of the long-neck tribe because, according to a Kayan tribe member interviewed by Marie Claire in 2008, their wages are reduced as punishment if they speak about their situation to tourists. So instead, they “smile and say nothing”.
The decision is yours to make
All this said, you could argue that tourism is the main income of this people. So, if you take away the tourism then it is only the Kayans that will suffer. I even saw a video made by the Matador Network, in which Mu Tae, a woman who has lived in the community for 25 years says that they want people to come and see what they make and to share their knowledge. She said that they want to show tourists how they make their crafts and how they live and therefore preserve their traditions, and without tourists it would be harder for them to make a living.
It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand if you boycott this tourist attraction then you are not contributing to the exploitation of this human zoo, but you are also hurting the incomes of this community by doing so. But you have to ask yourself why you are hurting their incomes by not visiting, and this is because they are not allowed to leave their community to seek higher education and work and to better themselves. So in the meantime they are reliant on tourists. For me it was important to protest their treatment at the hands of the Thai government by not visiting. If you want to travel ethically then I would recommend not visiting the long neck tribe, but I will leave the decision up to you.