Tourists used to flock to see the legendary ‘long-neck’, or ‘giraffe’ women in northern Thailand. Now, amid campaigns to ‘Stop the Human Zoo’, the steady stream of visitors has dried up. And so has their money.
In northern Thailand, 21-year-old Mapaung awaits the now-infrequent visits from tourists, who she depends upon for income.
However, Mapaung’s village has been deserted by tourists following the ‘boycott the human zoo’ campaigns in 2008/09.
In the village of Huay Sua Thao, Mae Hong Son, things aren’t so dire. But a slowing of tourists have prompted many women to move to better-populated areas, such as Chiang Mai.
Just outside of Chiang Mai, women kept in ‘tribal villages’ for the convenience of tourists weave everything they sell on traditional wooden looms, enforcing their ‘tribal’ image.
Tourists pay 500 Thai baht (US$16.50) to see the long-neck Padaung women in these villages.
With most of the entrance fees going to the village’s owners, the only way for women to make their own money is through selling handmade handicrafts to visitors.
Women can receive small tips from selfie-taking tourists to supplement their meagre income.
Menfolk, unadorned with tribal dress, are of little interest to tourists, and often spend their days drinking or lazing out of sight in bamboo houses while the women weave handicrafts and pose for photographs.
From the age of five or six, Padaung girls begin winding a series of heavy brass coils around their necks to give them an elongated appearance. The coils, weighing up to four or five kilograms by the time a woman reaches adulthood, push down on their collarbones and compress their ribcages, resulting in a cultural garb unique to the Padaung.
Moo, 5, and Ma-so, 10, spend their days playing and posing for tourists.
“Tourist rings” are used by the Padaung women to lure more tourists in for interesting photos, and the possibility of a tip.
As they cannot speak much English, the Padaung women in Baan Tong Luang cannot properly explain their culture or their lives to the visiting groups. This job is left up to the Thai guide, and the women simply stare at the camera lenses pointed at them.
Life in the ‘human zoo’ villages can be disempowering for some women, but for many, it is an easy way to support their families whilst carrying on cultural traditions.
The origins of the rings remain a mystery (some claim it was to protect the women from tigers, others that it was to prevent men from other tribes from carrying them off), but Mapaung is determined for her young daughter to carry on her cultural tradition.
A woman watches tourists leave the village, having pocketed a handful of tips from the generous visitors.
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