You’ve likely heard of them.
Tribal people whose women have extraordinarily long necks wrapped and stretched in gold-colored rings.
This is not a Thai tradition; nor is it a practice of the people to whom most of our students belonged and whose ethnic kin we came to see: the Hmong.
It is a tradition of the Kayan, a people from Burma.
But like the Hmong, the Kayan have settled in Thailand following unrest back home. This allowed for our encounter at the end of our elephant ride.
Our pachyderm caravan dropped us off in pairs at the final stop of this three-in-one tourist attraction: elephants show/rides, bamboo raft rides, and then this: the advertised “Long Neck Village.”
Dismounting my seat atop the beast, I walked toward the village featuring a dirt road down the middle with straw/bamboo huts along either side and tables out front selling souvenirs.
I approached along with Poe Meh, a 26 year old woman and a fellow chaperon on this trip. Poe Meh isn’t Hmong. She’s Karenni, as were a few of the 8th graders on our trip.
Like the Kayan, the Karenni are a people from Burma who had also found refuge in Thailand; and like the Hmong, have since found a home in Minnesota. But I never thought to connect the dots between Poe Meh and the people we were about to encounter. She connected them, though. Real quick.
As we got our first glimpses of these women dressed in traditional clothing, including those neck rings, Poe Meh said to me that she recognized them. I asked about her people’s relation, and she shared that the Kayan are actually a subgroup of the Karenni.
Just then, she took a quick breath in, and with surprise said, “That’s my friend.”
She then briskly walked up, exclaiming the young woman’s name.
Poe Meh in her American clothes and her taller, longer-necked friend hugged and talked.
They hadn’t seen each other in a handful of years since Poe Meh left Thailand for America in 2009.
“What’s her name?” I asked Poe Meh.
Her friend responded, “Marie.”
Another surprise to me that Poe Meh’s friend had learned English.
“How do you know each other?” I asked.
“We were friends in high school,” said Poe Meh.
As teenagers, they lived close to one another as refugees from Burma and studied at the same school.
I used this chance to ask about the neck rings.
First, I learned they aren’t rings. It’s a brass coil that wraps the neck.
“One long piece,” said Poe Meh.
The coil unwinds, and they attach an extension (not sure how this is done) as the girl ages. Then they wind it back around the neck.
“Like a spring,” said Marie with a giggle.
“Do you sleep with it on?”
They do, and they leave it on for eating and bathing.
“Is there a woman with the longest neck in the village?” I asked.
Poe Meh asked Marie, who responded and pointed.
“Her aunt,” answered Poe Meh.
Off we went.
It was only 12 paces up the street. Then to the left was a vendor booth with a woman sitting behind.
I took the picture. She offered me items to buy. I bought a wooden bookmark.
Here’s a video of the introductions and interaction:
Then I put down the camera and thought about their culture.
I imagined Marie’s aunt growing up in her homeland. There, her neck coil was a defining marker of her life–a status, a meaning.
But now these older Kayan have lost their homes, their cultural environment, and live in a part of the world whose people are apathetic to their ways–except as a feature on a tourist stop for entertainment.
I thought back to a couple of days earlier when we visited the touristy Hmong villages, a non-Thai people adjusting to life in a new land by using their culture to make money.
The bright side is that they make a living AND keep their culture. The flip side is their culture has been reduced to an act, a job. The neck-coil is largely now an empty custom.
Watching the Kayan aunt, she sat there straight-faced, long-necked, waiting for people to buy from her.
Then when she was active, she was posing for photos with tourists, trying to sell them kitsch, and showing a laminated article from a Belgian physician showing how the neck coils aren’t unhealthy.
I also thought back to a couple of years earlier and my piece about the 99-year-old Chinese woman I visited in 2011, a living time capsule of the ancient Imperial age of foot-binding. The 99-year-old watched her own progeny walk about with regular-sized feet on the old farmstead yet in a world unrecognizable to the one in which she grew up.
Closer to home, this is also the reality of my grandparents yet alive and watching their grandkids and great-grandchildren assume the new world.
Perhaps due to their refugee migration into Thailand, and the extraordinary physical custom of the neck coil, the Kayan people are a startling example of this universal phenomena of an older generation watching the new take their place.
And it indeed seemed the younger Kayan women did adjust–perhaps to the delight of the aunt.
Poe Meh’s friend and the female Karenni students of our group hit it off.
Then, up the hill, I met a Kayan woman learned on the Western guitar.
It was nice to end this visit on a bright spot: that the flame of the human spirit cannot be put out even when forced to leave one’s land, transplanted into a new world.