Troubling footage shows how children are forced to wear brass rings around their neck in a Thai village slammed as a ‘human zoo’.
The young girls – some that appear to be just two or three years old – are part of the Burmese ‘Long Neck’ tribe which has settled in the hills of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
A brass ring is added to their necks each year until they reach 21 – at which point they have to keep them on for the rest of their lives. The heavy rings push down the shoulders and rib cage to elongate the neck, with locals believing the dragon-like appearance is a sign of beauty.
While the tradition has been practiced for hundreds of years, increasing numbers of travellers have raised concerns that the tribe’s customs are being exploited to fuel Thailand’s money-spinning tourist machine.
It has lead to the area being dubbed a ”human zoo” with some visitors saying they were ”disturbed” by the tribal people in the ”faux villages”.
Others have raised fears that children are forced into wearing the rings not only to preserve cultural identity, but to keep the tourist attraction generating money through the years.
Footage taken on September 27 shows how one downcast young girl struggles with brass rings on her her neck while another lays on the ground next to a mobile phone.
One travel blogger, Cassandra Brooklyn who runs EscapingNY, wrote: ”Ironically, I visited this village to avoid the exploitative elephant rides, only to find myself inside a human zoo. Five minutes into my visit, it was clear that some women did not enjoy making small talk with tourists and were only interested in getting them to buy textiles and handicrafts. Toward the end of the village, a couple of young mothers looked downright sad, as though living in this quasi human zoo had, understandably, sapped all of their energy and dignity.”
Another travel writer, Joanna Szreder from The Blond Travels, said that after the native Burmese women had moved to Thailand the ”villages became an attraction, a human zoo, where for 300 Baht you can take a photo with women dressed in colourful outfits, with a neck so long that her head looks almost like a poppy flower”.
Joanna, who was disturbed by the experience, added: ”When the Thai government officials saw these women on their doorstep, they felt it was going to be a great business opportunity.”
The women of the Karen tribe, also known as the Padaung people or the Kayan people, fled Burma amidst war and political unrest before settling in the hills of Thailand in the mid 20th century.
Traditionally they have relied on farming as a source of income, but their money now comes from selling handicrafts to tourists. Visitors must also pay admission fees to get into the village to take pictures of their women in their striking costumes.
According to custom, the women have rings added each year from when they are five until 21 and only remove the rings for a few hours once a year for a new coil to be added during a women-only ceremony. They have to sleep with them on.
The tribe believes that the neck rings give the women an appearance similar to a dragon, a revered creature in their folklore dating back to the Bronze age, when legend has it that their ancestors formed from a union between a stunning female dragon and a male human.
Karen people are only allowed to marry blood relatives which they prefer to be first cousins, according to a study by Dr. Lwin Lwin Mon from the Department of Anthropology at Yadanabon University in Burma.
Dr Lwin wrote: ”A go-between performs the betrothal and wedding ceremony. They marry within consanguineal relatives. The groom pays some silver coins as a bride-price and all the wedding expenses. The Padaung people practise monogamy and their divorce rate is only about 10 per cent.”
Tour guide Khun Anan, who takes holidaymakers on trips to see the women, defended tours to village. He said that younger generations are following the tradition, which some believe began partly as a way to protect the people against animal attacks and evil spirits.
He said: ”The Karen traditions are hundreds of years old. The neck rings gave them a unique identity which separated them from other tribes. They continue doing this to preserve their culture.”
Tourism is estimated to account for around 20 per cent of Thailand’s GDP.