In Northern Thailand live tribes who have gained international notoriety for their unique perspective of beauty: stretching their necks as long as possible. Anna Power went to visit one of these tribes–this is what she found.
The Kayan are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Burma. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, many Kayan tribes fled to Thailand following conflict with the military regime in Burma. A 2004 estimate places their population to be around 130,000.
Amongst the refugee camps set up, there was a Long Necked Section.
The girls start wearing the neck rings when they are five years old. The rings are long brass wound spirals.
Over the years, as the coil is replaced, more rings are added to it–a full set of neck rings weighs approximately 10 kilos, although very few woman actually wear a full set. The appearance of a longer neck is apparently an illusion. The weight of the rings pushes down the collar-bone to the extent is appears to form part of the neck. This particular form of body modification has been a tradition for long over a thousand years.
There are many different explanations why they wear the neck rings, ranging from it preventing tiger bites to aiding the women in appearing unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. The most common explanation is that an extra long neck is a sign of beauty.
Our decision to go and visit the hill tribe was very spur of the moment. We had about 60 spare minutes before we needed to be at the airport to catch our flight to Bangkok–my friend was not so keen and when we had been there for about five minutes, I understood why. I felt instrusive. I imagined how I would feel about tourists walking around my sleepy village in the UK, pointing and talking photos.
However, as we were there, we walked around the village, and then arrived at Long Necked Karen village. This was actually a little bit more refreshing – there were some really cute children playing, and they didn’t seem phased by us, which suggested they were not in fact used to seeing tourists. I suspect if they were we might have been asked for pencils and sweets!
We were the only two tourists present when we visited, which actually made me feel better -we were taken by a local driver to a local tribe as a spur of the moment decision rather than it being a pre-arranged trip. I am not sure the experience would be quite the same if visiting with a bus load of people.
We didn’t buy anything, as we felt it too hard to distinguish between the stalls, but we made sure to put into every donation box that we saw.