In my earlier years of travel I would often only read about the ethical concerns about certain places after I had been there. These days I try to be informed before I go on an adventure to see the most popular tourist attraction of the area. For a lot of people, seeing the giraffe-like, long neck women is just another stop on their Thailand adventure. Many tourist agencies make a quick stop at these hill villages so that tourists can have a quick photo opportunity with exotic-looking women before being shuttled on to the next destination.
But do you know who these woman are? And the biggest question is, should you support this controversial tourism attraction?
Over two decades ago, a civil war caused the Kayan residents to flee Myanmar. Thailand granted them temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status, but now they live in guarded villages on the northern Thai border.
What makes the Kayan woman unique is their custom of wearing rings to create the appearance of a long neck. This exotic tradition inspired the creation of tourism villages in 1985. Unfortunately, without citizenship, Kayans have limited access to utilities and aren’t allowed to resettle outside of these tourist villages. This is because the Thai government claims they are economic migrants and not real refugees.
Starting at the young age of four or five, Kayan long neck women wear these rings, adding more annually as they acclimate to the increased weight. These coils weigh up to 25 pounds and depress the chest and shoulders. This creates the illusion of a disembodied head hovering over a shimmering pedestal of gold rings. Contrary to popular belief, the coils don’t lengthen the neck itself and thus can be removed without the neck snapping. Yet, women still wear these coils year round, even while sleeping.
The origin of the tradition is a mystery even to the Kayans. An ancient legend claims rings protected villagers from tiger attacks, since the cats attack victims at the neck. Another theory said the rings helped ward off men from rival tribes by lessening the women’s beauty. Today, people believe the opposite– the longer their neck, the more beautiful the woman. It is true that some women enjoy upholding this tradition but others feel pressured to endure the painful custom to make a living.
An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 to stop by these hill tribe villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, the long neck woman have to sell trinkets, crafts and photo-ops to make a living, essentially working in a live-in gift shop. The women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which is done on a backstrap loom. You can witness them practising their impressive craft while getting to know them. While some say the villages give Kayans a paid opportunity to retain their culture, others condemn this arrangement for exploiting stateless women and children in exchange for tourist dollars.
Here is my answer to the big question of, can you justify ethical travel to these villages?
Yes, just do your research. Most women view tourist visits as a way to make a living since their non-resident status limits employment opportunities. However, sensationalizing dress, customs, and unique traditions of these people mean nothing if they are not treated with respect.
Here are some recommendations for when you visit:
1. Do some research and find a responsible tour company that will promote a socially responsible visit.
2. Make sure your money benefits the village directly instead of third party companies. Support the women by purchasing their handicrafts and by paying a fair price for their beautiful handwork.
3. Don’t just stop by for a photo shoot. Learn about the people and hear their stories.
4. Consider volunteering in a village if you are staying in Thailand for a while.
The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.