Long Neck Women | Captives of Tourism
Long neck women, giraffe ladies, bizarre, freaks. They’re called many names but these indigenous people are actually the Kayan Lahwi, a sub-group of the Karen tribe.
I have been following their stories for many years. Their cultural oddity & persecutions are what fueled my desire to find them in their ancestral & adoptive homelands.
Long neck Kayans are Burmese refugees, not Thai.
The ancient origin of the Karenni people is Tibeto-Burman. Their oral traditions point to China as their prehistoric roots. But they call Burma, now named Myanmar as home.
In the late 1980s & 1990s, they abandoned their ethnic settlements because of military persecutions. From Myanmar’s Shan & Kayah states, they journeyed to the northern borders of Thailand to seek asylum. Refugee camps were set up along the banks of Pai River in Mae Hong Son.
Under Those Teetering Heads
The women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are unique because of the brass rings around their neck. With some stretching to about 11-inches, they’re often labeled as “giraffe ladies”.
Girls start to wear the heavy rings as young as 5 years old. And as they mature, new coils are gradually turned until their heads teeter. But the appearance of elongated neck is just an illusion. It is actually the collarbone shrunk by the heavy rings that creates the impression of a stretched neck.
But why would they endure such pain?
Many stories hover around it. They say it was to protect them from tiger attacks that were known to grab humans by the neck. Or that the coils represent the dragon, a significant creature in Kayan folklore.
Some anthropologists write that they purposely looked ugly to evade from becoming slaves of other tribes. In contrast, many ladies claim that having long necks are symbols of beauty & wealth that attract better husbands.
Seen as economic migrants & not real asylum seekers by Thai authorities, the Kayans are not entitled to any refugee accommodation. With this, they can neither leave their camps nor acquire jobs. The children too cannot go to school.
Pathetic & stateless, the Kayans are left to fend for themselves. They were forced to live in a “freak show” condition. The collections that they get from entrance fees & from selling handicrafts to tourists are what sustain them.
After the wars ended in Myanmar, the Burmese government sought for their repatriation. Thousands have returned home but the long neck women are still left in Thailand. Seemingly without hope of escape, many of them are held captives because of their tourism value.
Some countries like New Zealand even offered asylum to get them out of their wretched conditions in Thailand. But to this day, they still struggle for their freedom.
Some of them are smuggled into private theme parks in Chiang Mai as part of a tour circuit along with elephant & tiger shows. Sadly kept like a human zoo, the long neck Kayans are reduced to being exotic attractions.
Of Myths & Historical Realities
What was once thought as protection from tiger attacks, these brass rings openly prey them today to the fangs of tourism. It does not anymore represent the dragon in their folkore but the serpent that coils their freedom to death.
For centuries, they have evaded slavery by being ugly with long necks. But today they are not only slaves but also prisoners of fate. They only thought of being beautiful & attracting better husbands. But the modern world sees them exotic & as prized attractions.
Is it Ethical?
I have to admit that I am part of commoditizing the Kayan Lahwi by paying entrance fees & buying their handicrafts. But all of these are required to get into their villages & to be able to take their photographs.
I sincerely feel guilty but there’s no other way anymore to find them in their natural habitat. Even in Myanmar, the long neck women now work in souvenir shops like those around Inle Lake.
Do not patronize the long neck tours sold in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai & Pai. These companies charge hefty sums to bring you to private theme parks where you find them like a museum tableau.
According to some long neck women, they are not allowed to speak to tourists about their real condition. They keep mum especially about the small amount of salary they receive for posing as freaks.
If it feels a little better, find them in their campsite in Mae Hong Son. While you still pay an entrance fee, the amount you give goes direct to the village. There’s no more private “middle man” who gets a share of the pie.
I have finally seen the long neck Kayan Lahwi but it also left me in mixed emotions. I am happy to have personally seen a wonderful group of ethnic people. But on the other side, their disturbing conditions made me feel so sad. It is that feeling of having found a precious gem yet you are haunted by cultural contempt—because like them, you are left with no choice.