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'Long-necked' Karen girls yearn for normality

Northern Thailand village relies on custom to earn much needed income from tourists

'Long-necked' Karen girls yearn for normality

Muko feels sweat trickling down her neck even as she sits under the shade of a wooden hut on a sweltering afternoon.
"This is so uncomfortable. I cannot wipe off the sweat because of this," the 15-year-old girl sulks, pointing at the 15 brass rings, weighing three kilograms, that adorn her neck.
Muko, who has no family name, belongs to the Padaung tribe of Myanmar's ethnic minority Karen who are known as "the long necks" because of their tradition of decorating female necks with brass rings.
"I started wearing them when I was five. Since then, I've worn them 24 hours a day," says the round-faced girl with big black eyes.
An adult woman can wear as many as 25 rings weighing a total of five kilograms. But Muko does not want to be a 25-ring woman.
Instead, she is one of a growing number of Padaung girls who see the custom as a stifling and outdated tradition in the modern age, and who are sick of being viewed as exotic - or, worse, as freaks - by outsiders.
"I want to remove my rings because they are heavy and give me neck pain," she complains.
Muko's family came to this small, mountainous Thai village near the border with Myanmar two decades ago as refugees fleeing a long-running war between Myanmar's military and Karen rebels fighting for autonomy.
While Thailand calls Huay Pu Keng "a village," its only residents are some 200 Karen refugees like Muko's family, technically making this isolated place, about 920 kilometers north of Bangkok, a refugee camp.
Coming to stare at the long-necked girls has become a popular tourist attraction in northern Thailand, earning much needed income for Karen refugees who sell cheap keyrings, textiles and long-necked wooden dolls.
Source of income
This leaves Muko and other long-necked girls in a dilemma.
"I told my mother I did not want the rings any more. But she always said 'no rings mean no money' from foreign tourists," says Muko, who is wearing a white shirt and a traditional red Karen skirt.
Muko helps at her mother's small souvenir stall, the only source of income for her family, whenever she is not attending school at a nearby refugee camp.
Her family's monthly income varies from 500 Thai baht (US$14) to 3,000 baht (US$86), depending on seasonal tourism demand, Muko says.
But she does not want to sell souvenirs for the rest of her life.
"I want to be a teacher," Muko says.
Her long-necked friend Amy says she too wants to remove her 13 brass rings to "become a normal girl."
"I want to dress like a normal woman. But my mother says I won't be able to sell souvenirs if I take off my rings," says Amy, a 15-year-old Karen Christian. Her mother fled Myanmar to Thailand when Amy was a year old.
"A lot of my classmates no longer wear rings, and when I watch TV or read Thai fashion magazines, no woman wears neck rings," says the pretty youngster, who has worn the rings since she was five.
Amy complains the rings bring her constant, and unwanted, attention.
"When I ventured out to a nearby Thai city with my friends, people pointed their fingers at us, saying 'here come the long necks'," recalls Amy.
"I kept quiet, but was very angry at them. I got hissed at by total strangers only because of my neck rings," she says.
But Muko and Amy explain that the rings are coiled around their necks so tightly that they cannot remove them on their own.
Pain for the sake of beauty
It is not clear when the practice began, although Mayao, a 52-year-old member of the tribe, said she recalled her great-grandmother had neck rings.
The younger girls said they were told when the first rings were placed around their necks that they would make them look more beautiful and help them attract good husbands - not unlike the justification for Chinese footbinding, a crippling practice that endured for 1,000 years until the communist revolution of 1949.
The rings cause the girls constant pain and discomfort, including headaches, stiff shoulders and muscles.
While the rings effectively make the neck look longer, in fact their weight pushes the shoulders and collarbones down by several centimeters. According to tradition the girls are never permitted to remove the rings, which force them to look straight ahead as they cannot move their heads.
To take them off, the girls have to see a specialist who charges 500 baht for the service. After some time, their shoulders and collarbones usually return to normal.
"I am secretly saving money for the ring removal," Amy confides. Muko, sitting next to Amy, says she plans to remove her rings when she finishes middle school next year.
"My mother does not know my plan. It's my secret," Muko says.
For 22-year-old Mari Muri, who wears 16 rings, the pressure to keep the rings died with her mother three years ago.
"My mother used to say neck rings would make me beautiful. But I've never believed in that," says Mari Muri, who sells colorful textiles, postcards and long-necked dolls, and has had the rings since she was five.
"I am supposed to add to my neck rings, but I've stopped doing that since my mother passed away," she said.
She said her 19-year-old sister Mu Ba removed her rings as soon as their mother died and moved to another refugee camp, says Mari Muri, who has no family name, adding that she is ready to take hers off "any time."
"Although I make money thanks to my rings, I can't stand it when foreigners stare at me and give me very strange looks," she says. "I hope I can work outside the village, but it is very difficult because of my refugee status."
For Mayao, the 52-year-old, girls like Muko, Amy and Mari Muri are a disgrace to the Karen tradition.
"More and more girls are removing their rings. They don't appreciate our culture, which has been passed down through generations," says the petite woman, who proudly shows off her 25 brass rings.
"I'm worried our Karen tradition will disappear," says Mayao.
Amy, for different reasons, also expects the tradition to end.
"It's enough for me. I will not put neck rings on my daughter," she says.


Updated : 2021-06-15 13:02 GMT+08:00