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.