In the hills of northern Thailand. The cities named Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, famous for the golden triangle. Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meets. It is also popular for the Kayan tribe, a sub-group of Red Karen people.
The Kayan tribe basically belongs to Myanmar. But many of them fled to Thailand and were set up in refugee camps due to political turmoil in the late 80s between the Karen National Liberation Army and military dictatorship in Yangon.
It took no time for the Kayan tribe to become a tourist attraction. You might be wondering how the tribe can become a tourist attraction. Let’s dig into detail.
Why Kayan women wear Brass coils around their neck?
Starting at the age of five, the women of the Karen tribe (also known as giraffe women) traditionally wear brass coils around their neck, and more are added as they get older. The brass coil pushes the collarbone down to compress their rib cage. This gives the impression that their neck is long and stretched. However, it is not so. There are several theories that justify this tradition.
One of the theories accounts that the brass rings were used to make the girls unattractive to the slave traders who were hunting them down while others say it was a sign of beauty and wealth. And some say it’s a part of their tradition. However, many young girls have stopped wearing these rings these days.
These women are also known for their incredible weaving skills which is done on a back-strap loom. People say the villages give these women a paid opportunity to retain their culture as their non-residential status limit employment opportunities for them.
Why Tourists visit to Chiang Mai?
Many tourists travel to the villages in North Thailand every year to see the so-called “Giraffe Women”. This tradition has become a great source of income for the local government and also an opportunity for the women to sell their crafts to the tourists.
However, the tourists are mostly interested in clicking photos with these women instead of buying their artisans. The visitors take pictures with these women like they would with a piece of an art or stare them in an astonishment.
I wonder how these women must feel when people take photos of them. Don’t they find it disturbing?
For some tourists, seeing the long neck women may seem like just another tourist attraction as many tourist agencies stop by these villages just to see these women. The visitors pile out for a quick photo opportunity with exotic-looking women before tour guides shuttle the group to the next destination.
It has become a lucrative tourist spot!
Why these women are not allowed to leave the village?
According to the research, Kayan men and women are not allowed to leave the village without a Thai ID card as they are Burmese refugees and they cannot apply for one to build up their future elsewhere. They were not even allowed to go to schools or hospitals. However, their situation is getting better slowly but yet they do not have permission to leave.
From a young age, Kayan girls are deprived of basic facilities. They have little to no access to schools, water, electricity, and health care, and those with coils around their neck will never get to experience life outside these makeshift villages.
When the tourists visit these women, we see their happy and smiling faces, but we don’t know what the fact is-these women might be happy to see the visitors and welcome the chance to boost their income by selling their crafts and meeting people from other parts of the world. The other case may be even if these women are not happy, they do not have any option but to be a piece of an art and get photographed by the visitors and earn income.
Ethical or not to visit these women
This makes me think how ethical is it to visit these Kayan women. As long as they are exploited in this guarded village and not given their rights to make their own decision.
I feel travel is about enjoying the moment, making connections with people from different cultures. We should create a symbiotic relationship with the locals instead of treating them as a spectacle to exploit. As such while visiting Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai the tourists should talk more to these women. Get involved with them. Ask about their crafts, and make them happy about your visit instead of just taking a snap and leaving.
The aspects surrounding the lives of these Karen women in Thailand are controversial. So it is difficult to pick the right or wrong attitude towards visiting this Thai fascination.
Please share your views regarding the Kayan women. Should we support this tourist attraction?