Human Zoo in Northern Thailand

Photos by Aistė Stancikaitė

Be it in a magazine, TV doc­u­ment­ary or geo­graphy class in high school — every­body has seen pho­to­graphs of women with brass rings around their extremely long necks, at least once. Karen Padaung — that’s how they’re called — is a very small tribe, ori­gin­ally from Myanmar. However, because of the dif­fi­cult polit­ical situ­ation there, small num­bers of Long-​Necks have moved to Thailand and settled in a few small vil­lages in the Northwest.

As the tribe’s myth­o­logy explains, the primary reason for a woman to wear mul­tiple rings around her neck was to pro­tect it from tiger’s bite. Later, long neck became just a sign of a great beauty and since this cus­tom was very strong, it remained up until these days, des­pite the fact that it dis­torts woman’s col­lar bones and ver­teb­rae. However, it’s not only about beauty any­more. It’s also about money.

When every single tour agency in Northern Thailand screams that vis­it­ing Karen Long-​Neck vil­lage is ‘a must’, even­tu­ally you give up and book a tour. However, the fact that vis­it­ors need to pay an entrance fee to the vil­lage arouse sus­pi­cion that it all is a bit com­mer­cial­ized. When you actu­ally get there and see another ten mini-​buses at the entrance, you almost know what to expect inside.

So when you enter the vil­lage, which is, basic­ally, a street with souvenir stalls, you see Karen women selling their han­di­crafts. As soon as tour­ists are close enough to say hello, a num­ber of guns are loaded and the shoot­ing begins. People don’t ask, they just tire­lessly take pic­tures and Karen women either put on their worn out smiles and pose or look very indif­fer­ent and keep their view­ing. None of the tour­ists makes an effort to start a con­ver­sa­tion with the tribe’s women, but they can’t say much more than “photo” or “buy some­thing” either. And so it is: an uncom­fort­able silence, embar­rassed looks, this incred­ibly big dis­tance between the two worlds and the atmo­sphere of a human zoo.

When one Long Neck woman, who speaks a bit of English, gets asked “Does it hurt?”, she looks down and silently answers “A little bit”. But then a moment of weak­ness is over, she imme­di­ately gets back to her happy pres­ence and offers to put on some fake brass rings and take a pho­to­graph together. At the end, now it’s about doing busi­ness, and they do it well.

Aistė Stancikaitė
About author:
Aistė Stancikaitė
Aiste Stancikaite works with images and text to tell stories about places and people. She is interested in reality and how it transforms into multiple narratives when it's pictured. Aiste has finished B.A. degree in Fine Arts (Painting) and since then is travelling, making photo essays, writing articles and doing other creative projects. At the mom... Read further >
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