Today I’am going to present to you the Karen Women, better known as the “Long Neck Women” or “Giraffe women”. Attention to tourists for this could be a taboo subject. I doubted myself whether I should visit or not these women till the last second! Anyway, lets start from the beginning. Who are these “Giraffe women”?

Giraffe Women from the Karen tribe

These women that can be found in many specific places along the frontier between Birmania and Thailand belong to a tibetan – birmanian ethnic minority. They live at Birmania, which used to be Myanmar. From the seventies they have been persecuted by the birmanian authorities in order to create a more western image of the country, therefore being expelled from their own country because of the armed conflict, finding refuge at Thailand. They have been living the last thirty years near the city of Mae Hong Sun under a complicated juridic status as they are considered political refugees (explained further in detail). Must be noticed there are other Giraffe Women near South Africa who belong to the Ndebeles Tribe.

Sign that indicates the village where the Women with the Long neck can be found.

Sign that indicates the village where the Women with the Long neck can be found.

In the village entrance, it’s explained in different languages where they come from and how they live.

In the village entrance, it’s explained in different languages where they come from and how they live.

Arrived to the village, not really knowing what to expect. Is it really a touristic site?

Arrived to the village, not really knowing what to expect. Is it really a touristic site?

A Collar Spiral symbol of their traditions and customs

The particularity of these women is for sure the Collar Spiral that they voluntarily wear around their neck. The use of “voluntarily” is not taken lightly in the context as the wearing of the collar is no way associated to submission. It is trully a choice up to the women who wears it. They start putting the first Collar Spirals at age 5. After that, as they grow older they can add more spirals. Note that I only use the Word “spiral” and don´t use collar. Why? There are two mistakes repeatdly commited by westerners. The first mistake is to believe that they get one collar or ring per year. This is not true, as each women grows differently so the amount and size depends on their respective growth. Futhermore, the rings are not simply added one by one to enlarge the neck. Instead, when you want to enlarge the neck you must replace the entire spiral with a longer one. This idea is very important, taking me at least an hour to fully understand the whole process as it was confusing due to the fact that in the tourist shops there was spiral around the collar and no rings. I was just about to buy a spiral for my sister as a Christmas gift but I was initially looking for rings so I didn’t focus too much on the spirals. And also, I cannot be sure if Charline actually would want the spiral if she has to wear it for the rest of her life. And since it has to be a voluntary act….well, she would have certainly caused sensations with this type of collar at Nogent le Retrou.

Before I continue to list the common misconceptions inherent to popular belief I wish to deliver more relevant information. If they take off their spiral collars it does not mean their inmediate death as I have frequently heard from other tourists. As a matter of fact, the spirals don’t affect the vertebrae of the neck due to the stretching. There is no negative effect such as dislocation or suffocation and the women from the Karen tribe repeatdly use the rings in their daily clothing with no consequence for their health. The only effect worth mentioning is the unavoidable weakening of the neck muscles.

First contact with the so called “Giraffe Women”

First contact with the so called “Giraffe Women”

We can buy many articles and ítems at the local stores. The profits are used to help the ethnic minority.

We can buy many articles and ítems at the local stores. The profits are used to help the ethnic minority.

Giraffe Women, custom under fire

Where does this custom come from? I’m sorry to say I can’t answer that question. I have researched deeply in many online fórums and diverse books and there only seems to be a consensus that the whole thing is a complete mystery. Despite people not knowing where it comes from or the reasons of its existence, different possibilities are listed.

Firstly it is considered that these rings had the objective of making the women less attractive to the men of other tribes. Similar cases exist in India and Birmania, where tattos were used precisely to avoid the interest and attention of other men. This mentality is very present in the same geographic area.
Other ideas are suggested: the rings can be used to protect the women against tigers, predators that tend to tear open the neck of their victims or it could be for aesthetic reasons, such as resembling dragons, a mythological creature very present in the Karen’s tribe culture. We can also understand how the custom evolved as the tribe prospered; as copper necklace and bracelets of silver (forearms and knees) became signs of prestige and wealth. It is perfectly normal for a small 5 year old girl wanting to look like her mom and wait impatiently for the moment where she would wear her “prestige and wealth”, just as her mother. For more information

Nowadays the women of Karen dress the spiral collar essentially to continue with the tradition that’s has existed for centuries and that it can exercise a powerful attraction on … TOURISTS. Big words can’t change that and it’s not surprising that many organisations are against tourists visiting these villages.

Women with long necks besides Karen village

Women with long necks besides Karen village

Giraffe woman make elaborate artesanal objects right in front of your eyes

Giraffe woman make elaborate artesanal objects right in front of your eyes

The more I walk around, the more I realice that agriculture plays a role as essential as tourism

The more I walk around, the more I realice that agriculture plays a role as essential as tourism

 

Controversial and taboo subject

Now, here comes the most important part of the article. As I mentioned in the introduction, I had doubts about visiting the “Giraffe women”. Why? It’s simple. This visit is included in every organised touristic trip along the frontier between Birmania and Thailand. Obviously I didn’t want to arrive there with in boiling packed bus with another 50 tourists to watch these “Giraffe women”. These is, in a way, the creation of “human zoos”. So it is not suprising at all that many organisations call them that way. But this is not just not some small, pointless criticism. The United Nation’s High Comissioner for the refugee supports this stance and calls for direct boicot of the Karen villages visits. The UNHCR symbolises virtue in this case, as it does whatever neccessary to protect the lives and dignity of those who are refugees.

To wear artisan jewelry for the neck is purely an option. Women have a choice. Certan women, as ilustrated in the photo, prefer to wear them arounf their knees.

To wear artisan jewelry for the neck is purely an option. Women have a choice. Certan women, as ilustrated in the photo, prefer to wear them arounf their knees.

Women choosing beans for lunch

A portrait of one of the women long neck

A portrait of one of the women

A portrait of one of the women

The refugee issue is everything but simple. They are political refugees at the eyes of the Thai authorities, the land where they live does not belong to them. They are not considered Thai citizens. This means they cannot possess either rice fields or any other type of field. In the best of the cases, the have some backgardens. This means that the majority, if not everyhting, of their income comes exclusively from tourism. If you wish to visit a Karen village you must pay an entrance fee. That income plus any money they make out of the artesanal ítems they sell is their biggest source of money. So, here is the question I would like UNHCR to answer: if you ask to boycott the villages, how will the members of the Karen tribe thrive without income? They have three options: to either, become homeless, die of hunger or to aim to restart their lives in Birmania, where there are is no guarantee of success despite the very recent democracy that has been born there. Thier juridical status is terrifyingly alarming. It’s worth admiring the effort UNHCR does around the world to help refugees but their position on the people of Karen, asking to boycott, is at least, incomprehensible. And if we start talking about “human zoos”, I laugh healthily about the fact that the biggest Karen tribe attracts 1500 people per year, which is in average, 4 per day! Nevertheless it is still regrettable that most of the money made in this business is by the Thai tourist agencies, profitting in the interest of tourist for the “Giraffe women”.

Fields and tourims are the economic motors of these villages. I don’t regret coming at all. Its more complicated to come in motorbike but much more authentic.

Fields and tourims are the economic motors of these villages. I don’t regret coming at all. Its more complicated to come in motorbike but much more authentic.

One of the women who sews in a traditional manner

One of the women who sews in a traditional manner

Advice

Personally I believe that UNHCR’s stance towards the Karen village is not the right one and I think a balance can, or must, be found. From the beautiful town of Mae Hong Son you can visit and discover around 4 or 5 villages. The touristic agencies have buses to visit the closest Karen village, Huai Seua Thao, 7 km away. More or less. The potos I have taken are form a village 35 km away from Mae Hong Son. In this trip it’s preferable to rent a scooter because the route is not easy (in fact, very difficult as I realised when I fell with my scooter in front of a Thai military who was wondering what the hell was happening! LOL!). It’s better for all parties, as we have a more authentic experience, closer tot he real thing and we help them more, as they are in dear need of money. I actually bought my Christmas presents in this village!

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Yohann Taillandier

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