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The Longneck Kayan

January 2, 2015

The women of the Kayan Tribe are by far the most popular Hill Tribe to be searched out and found. To Western populations they are more commonly referred to as the Longneck Tribe. Due to their body augmentation they have one of the most popular attractions in the northern reaches of Thailand. I too fell into this exotic quagmire and could not wait to get them composed in the rangefinder in my camera. I was not disappointed when I saw them, not at first, as they are truly amazing. I was dropped off at a rest stop and hiked up a well-worn trail to their village. Here they sit on their bamboo-covered porches in all their glory, waiting for me and all the other people that were on the way to see them.
Their homes are a true cottage industry as they weave some of the finest textiles that can be found here. Along with the neck rings, the art of weaving is handed down from generation to generation. This is how they create an income. I was amazed and what I thought would be images of old weathered woman, the last of a vanishing tradition, turned in a photo shoot of very attractive and young woman, who also have the brass coils on their necks and young children at their feet.
Women of the Kayan tribes identify themselves by their forms of dress. Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. Girls first start to wear rings when they are around five years old. Over the years, the coil is lengthened. The weight of the brass pushes the collarbone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened; the appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.
It has been theorized that the coils originate from the desire to look more sexually attractive, as women have more slender necks than men. It has also been suggested that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore. Only symbolically, are the coils might to protect from tiger bites.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Kayan Tribes came to Thailand fleeing prosecution from the military regime in Burma. Among the refugee camps set up there was a Long Neck section, which became a tourist attraction. This situation did not go unnoticed and soon “business men,” working behind blind official eyes, were controlling this villages and people. As their popularity grew, more villages were built, closer to popular areas, like Chaing Mia, where day trips can be organized.
Still considered illegal immigrants the “business men,” used this status as control and if they were to take off the coils, they could not sell their wares, and they were threated with being returned to the refuge camps. Thus growing the encouragement of continuing the practice. They have become big money to Thailand and exploited, without the care for heath, as are the elephants and Tigers.
The Kayan people were nice, welcoming and you could openly see the love for their children but there seemed to be the absence of the outward compassion I so strongly felt in the other hill tribe villages. These “Longneck Villages” are basically set up in the form of street venders, the Long Neck ladies are the craftsmen and the whole situation is an exploited type of Human Zoo.
Is his situation good or bad? They still may be suffering some prosecution but their homes are not being burnt nor are they being raped and murdered. They are given a platform to create an income for themselves, though they surly are benefiting the “business men” more then themselves. They may be exploited for the price of a safe home, and in doing so they have just lost their freedom in a catch-22 entrapment. But, with the loss of their freedom, a word so dear to me, I will cast an opinion with no condemnation, yet; freedom is precious and cannot be embezzled on any level. But, as long as there are tourist willing to buy into this exploitation there will be “business men” gathering the benefits at a loss to someone else that is less fortunate.
For me, though I like the images that I captured, there is some falseness to them. They do not hold the wonderment of the other ones I have done, where the real Hill Tribes living as they do. I have to find the untamed, the authentic before I can feel I sit with the Kayan and lived a brief moment with them. There are still some tribes in Burma, Laos and Vietnam, further away from the easy tourist trekking trail. I want to find these people and experience their ways of living, and truly see them, as they should to be seen, holding with pride, the freedom that we all cherish. – dbA
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