Back in the 1920s, a former World War 1 Captain named Bertram Wagstaff Mills 1938 made a bet with an old Army colleague that he could open and successfully run a Circus. Years later, the Bertram Mills International circus was a highly successful entertainment troupe, with annual shows touring all over the UK which drew the likes of Winston Churchill and members of the British Royal family, along with thousands of others.
In 1938, Bertram passed away, but his sons took on the company to continue his legacy. 1938 was also the year that the Bertram Mill Circus brought a small group of women down from the hills of Myanmar and Thailand- then Burma and Siam respectively- and set them up as exhibitions in downtown London.
These ladies were known as ‘The Giraffe Neck Women’, and travellers to Thailand can encounter them as ‘curiosities’ even to this day.
There is no question that ‘assisted voyeur tourism’ is a thing.
The ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia would draw a lot less attention if they were marketed as ‘Mass Grave #231’.
Nothing is cooler than learning how to survive on Bush tucker with a real live Aboriginal tracker in Outback Australia, although many may find it disconcerting to discover that that same man would rather have a decent Caesar salad over a handful of Witchetty grubs washed down with river water.
And that’s all OK.
Travel is the greatest gift you can give yourself and getting up close and personal with other cultures is a way to really learn new things and expand our horizons.
Everyone has their own personal bucket list of must sees, and seeing ‘unusual’ people or ‘unique lifestyles’ can be fascinating.
Where it can get tricky is when the line blurs between real intercultural exchange and a kind of ‘you-wanted-to-see-it-so-we-built-it’ disneyfication of the real thing.
The so called ‘giraffe Neck Women’ are, in fact, part of the Karen community of tribes, and belong to the subset Kayan Lahwi.
There are about 130,000 people who identify as ‘Red Karen’ people and they are spread out from Vietnam, through the North of Thailand and into Myanmar.
These days, the cultural significance of having a long neck as a sign of beauty or wealth is lost, but the money it brings in through tourism dollars means the practice continues in spite of the obvious drawbacks.
In practical terms, the rings around the older women’s necks are actually one long coil. This coil starts being placed around a girl’s neck when she is about five or six years old. Medical examination shows that the length of the neck is not altered, however, the weight of the metal presses down on the collarbone, deforming the shoulders and rib cage over time so that the neck appears elongated. It is the upper body that is depressed, not the neck extended.
Removal of the coils, which can weigh over 8 kilograms, causes discomfort in the neck as the muscles have weakened over time, however this usually sorts itself out after a few days.
The discolouration of the skin is far harder to fix, and this seems to upset the women more if they decide enough is enough.
The real issue at play here, however, is not as much the physical discomfort as the obvious avenue for exploitation.
Refugees from across the border in Myanmar, where they say they fear the military Government, the ‘Giraffe Neck’ women have become an increasingly lucrative business for tour operators in the mountains of northern Thailand.
In the past few years, fighting has erupted among Thai tour companies who have created competing settlements of long-necked women to attract foreign visitors.
Curiosity means cash, and if there are no long-necked women in the village, nobody will come to visit and pay to take photos. This means that the rings are going onto young girls as a means of income, not as a reverence to cultural norms.
The metal coils are not comfortable for little collarbones, chaffing and itching are normal, as are tears and being marked as a ‘Giraffe Neck Woman’ greatly decreases your chances of an education, regular employment and a life outside of the village.
Which brings us back to the Bertram Mills International Circus, an entity which closed its doors in 1960. “Roll-up, roll-up and see”, they said. But in 2022, where are the lines drawn when it comes to outsiders looking and learning or looking and…just looking?