The Long Necked Women of Myanmar.
I’d seen them plastered in the pages of National Geographic and The Guiness Book of World Record, but beyond thinking “wow, I like their jewelry,” I never really given them much ocnsideration. I never knew where they came from, why they wore so many gold coils, or how their necks stretched so long. When I was in Myanmar last month, though, all of these questions were answered for me when I had the chance to meet some of these women — otherwise known as the “Kayan” women — during a trip down Inle Lake.
The Kayan women and their traditions have been a source of great controversy among human rights groups, specifically in relation to the coils they were around their necks. Young girls start wearing four or five of them when they’re 5 years old, and a new ring is added every year until they reach around 25 rings. Each coil weighs about a pound, and the neck pieces are rarely removed — a few times a year, at most. At night, they are loosened in the back to make sleeping more comfortable. No one really knows the origin of the tradition — some say the rings served as protection from tiger attacks, while others believe they were worn to help ward off men from rival tribes by lessening women’s beauty. Many women, apparently, like wearing the accessories because they feel long necks are a symbol of beauty, while others feel pressured to do it as a means of making money from tourists. Some people (including my tour guide) say that it’s a source or pride for these women, but it’s problematic for obvious reasons… the most significant of which is that it’s forced body modification.
Our tour guide told us we were going to see the Kayan women in their “natural habitat,” and that we shouldn’t worry about feeling voyeuristic, but that wasn’t exactly true. We met three of the long-necked women at a workshop, where they were weaving cotton and posing for photos. They had been brought down to Inle Lake from their village during the high season to make money from tourists, but did not live there year round. The majority of the Kayan group resides in Northern Myanmar, near the Thai border. The group fled to the area during the Burmese military conflict in the 1980’s and 90’s and set up their own refugee camp. Eventually, the spot turned into a tourist attraction, which allowed the Kayan people to become financially self-sufficient based on tourist income alone. The three women we saw at Inle Lake had set up their own mini-tourist attraction at one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country as a means of making money.
I felt very, very weird about the whole situation of us gawking at the women and taking their photos (just look at how uncomfortable I look in the photo my mom had me pose for with them). On the one hand, the rings are a part of their culture and the group relies on tourists for money. On the other hand, we were treating living, breathing human beings as glorified tourist attractions… Even though in a way, they are. I bought some of the gorgeous cotton pieces they were weaving, but couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d commodified them in doing so.
When I got home, I did a little bit of Googling to find out whether or not my feelings on this were totally crazy, or justified. According to Epicure and Culture, there are ways to ensure that the experience of visiting these women – whether in Inle Lake or in their traditional villages — is done ethically. Make sure you’re working with a tour company or private guide who can promote a socially responsible visit, try to extend your visit to learn about these women and their stories instead of just absentmindedly snapping photos, and make sure your money is going to benefit the women and their villages directly by purchasing handicrafts. Thankfully, during our visit, my mom and I did all three.
Epicure and Culture put it best, though, and summed up exactly how I felt about the whole thing (even though I did, admittedly, snap a picture of the experience): The goal of travel shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.