"Giraffe women" of Burma are trapped in Thailand

A community of 'long-necked' Burmese refugees in Thailand are being denied resettlement in other counties by Thai authorities, according to this BBC article. The women wear traditional, stacked metal neck rings that elongate their necks -- they've become a tourist attraction in Thailand, on display what is described as a 'human zoo'.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says that for the past two years, the Thai authorities have refused to allow a group of 20 Kayan to leave the country, despite firm offers to resettle them in Finland and New Zealand. The suspicion is that the women are being kept in Thailand because of the central role they play in the local tourism industry.
Link. (thanks, Kendra / image: BBC News)


  1. Hold on…this neck-elongation thing with the rings is a myth. It’s been debunked on U.S. TV. I also quickly found this:


    It is a myth, that the brass rings have elongate the neck of the wearer. Any orthopedic surgeon will tell you that: lengthening the neck would lead to paralysis or even death.

    As for the main point of the article, does the Thia government really think 20 “giraffe women” will affect tourism? Really?

  2. EH– I saw the X-ray in anthropology class. The clavicles are pressed down into the chest and the ribs are also affected, I believe. It is difficult to remove the rings because the muscles are not prepared for holding the neck correctly.

  3. Zember, the (pardon the pun) ringleader of the group has removed her rings to undercut the tourist appeal. There’s a photo of her at the link, although she’s wearing a turtleneck. Her head hasn’t fallen off so far.

  4. Each tourist pays a 250 baht entrance fee. Each women gets 1500 baht per month. For the 20 of them, that adds up to 30,000 baht per month. If there were 100-1000 visitors per day, that adds up to 750,000 to 7.5 million baht per month. That’s close to US$250K per month! Where’re all these money going !!!?

    I doubt it finds its way back to the central government in Bangkok. Probably pocketed by a few local officials who thought up the ticket collecting gig. You know what’s going on in Thailand today, with all the allegations of corruption against the last prime minister. Maybe if we all make a lot of noise, the central government will shut down this thing and let the women go.

  5. The money goes to the local and provincial officials of Mae Hon Song, where the village is located. Off the top of my head I think it’s the governor who won’t sign off on their necessary exit permits.

    Making a stink with the central government probably could help. Getting tourists to boycott the village could also, although it would be difficult to effect a boycott immediate enough to have an impact. The typical justification tourists come up with to assuage their discomfort at the ‘human zoo’ experience is that these women have no other options, and at least this is better nothing. But now it’s clear they do have other options that are being denied them.

    If you go on one of these hill-tribe treks that visit the ‘long-neck’ village, the best thing you can do at this point is to not pay the fee and wait outside at the gate with the driver. Then when you get back, write a letter, volunteer, or contribute in some other way to helping refugees or indigenous people in Thailand.

  6. Also, it’s not even 20 women who wear the rings. It’s 20 members of a few families that have daughters/wives who are wearing the rings. Having just them leave might not be a huge impact, but it would quickly lead to all the other families applying for resettlement as well.

  7. I’m a huge enthusiast for body modification of all types, but these women are being used in what amounts to a human zoo or forced freakshow.

    I worked with several Thai artists last year, and they had one hell of a hard time leaving the country. For those of use with US or EU passports it may seem strange, but Thailand doesn’t like to let people even travel outside the country for leisure or business without establishing a good reason first, as they sometimes don’t return.

  8. Are you sure it was the Thai government that wouldn’t let those artists leave? I’ve had Thai friends try to travel overseas, and they did not have to get permission to leave from Thailand. It’s the destination country that makes it difficult – requiring proof of income and assets/property that they wouldn’t be willing to ‘abandon’ at home. They did not have the same difficulty when traveling to neighboring countries. I’ve never heard of Thai citizens needing permission to leave the country.

  9. So I actually visited Chiang Rai/ Chiang Mai and Mae Sae 2 weeks ago (Northern Thailand near the Laos and Burma borders).

    My wife is Thai, and along with our Thai tour guide, I was able to get a little insight/rumor on these people. I cant confirm or deny any of this, so take with a generous helping of salt.

    The people I saw are from the Karen (Thai: Kareng) ethnic group, and most of them are originally from Burma having immigrated to Thailand a number of years ago. They have minimal legal status in Thailand, and supposedly every year each person is required to submit some sort of “documents” in order to stay in Thailand, and a fee of 10000 baht ($300US). Traditionally the tribe cultivated opium as a crop, which was halted by the Thai govenment back in the 1960’s or so. This actually makes some sense to me, given that they are very close to the famed golden triangle (sandbar of no-mans land in the middle of the Mekong river famous for opium trading). As a result, the tribes now have engaged in the “tourist” trade as a way to generate income to cover their expenses.

    Now it’s certainly possible that these “fees” are really bribes; I have no way of knowing, but it being Thailand, that thought is probably closer to the truth. So I’m in general consensus with #7.

    I have no idea on the issue about them wanting to leave and not being allowed as per the BBC article. It’s certainly plausible; but I didn’t hear anything of the sort 2 weeks ago. And the tribe certainly does live in a very mountinous and fairly isolated region; which gives them few prospects for the future, outside bussing more tourists (gawkers) to visit them.

    I also do not know if other tribes (other Karen groups, Akha, Hmong, regular Karen, etc), have the same situation.

    I can confirm the fee to see the villiage (as levied by the tour company) is 250-300 baht per tourist, as noted by Daniel above, and the BBC article.

    I didn’t get the impression that the women were forced (as in forced freakshow) at all, in fact, my wife and I had a lot of smiles and a pleasant exchange (in Thai) with the grand-mother who offered us betel paste (which we declined). According to our tour guide, the Karen women actually run the village, and have done so for many generations as the men often were “distracted” by partaking of too much opium. Certainly the women are the current income generators. But obviously I was on the outside looking in, I have no way of knowing the true nature of this, but to me it seems more of “lets get some easy money from tourists” (not so different then, say the Jim Rose Circus) then some sort of forced situation. But given that this is SE Asia, it could be either, or possibly even both.

  10. The Padaung are lumped in as ‘Karen’ although ‘Karen’ describes a very diverse group of people/tribes/languages. There are Karen who are indigenous to Thailand, and Karen who have migrated to Thailand from Burma over the last few generations, as well as those recent arrivals in the refugee camps. It’s likely most Thai people aren’t aware of how this group of Padaung differs from all those other Karen they know. The Padaung and Karen are often self-described as ‘cousins’ and not as members of the same ‘tribe’.

    This specific group was settled there by some Thai officials/entrepreneurs, they didn’t naturally migrate to that particular village and then take up tourism as a business. They do get paid relatively well (compared to other migrants and refugees), despite the fact that the bulk of the profit goes to the Thais who actually own that village.

    There have been several recent articles on this situation that have discussed the difference of perspectives between the older women and youth as well. The Padaung are matriarchal, while other Karen groups are not, so the older woman are in charge, and to many of them, the situation they are in is far better than any alternative.

    But, for the younger women, they have no opportunities there – they have to get permission just to leave the village. They have no access to proper education, no chance of becoming legal Thai residents, and now, no chance to even resettle somewhere else. As Zember has said in more than one article she’s featured in, it really comes down to the freedom of choice. Right now, for those who wear the rings, their choices are to abandon a cultural practice they do value in hopes of getting an education or resettlement, or, hold on to their culture and face a future as a tourist attraction with a steady income but no autonomy or rights.

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