The Human Zoo
As our motorized canoe sliced through the morning mist, I couldn’t discern the water from the sky. We were sailing through a monochrome plane of grey, with no reference point but the occasional floating lotus leaf, or a few Intha fishermen on flat-bottom, wooden skiffs, who stared at us from beneath their rice hats as we passed.
Eventually, Ywama emerged through the veil of mist like a mirage, a village of thatched, teak huts floating over the lake on anorexic, wooden stilts.
The beauty and tranquility of this scene was lost on me, however; marred by the testosterone-roar of our boat engine, and the macabre purpose of my visit.
I had come to see a ‘Human Zoo.’
“It’s disgusting what they do to the Padaung tribe, ” Harri’s warning rang through my head, “They’re paraded around like freaks; you shouldn’t go.”
“Oh, it’s terrible. Of course I wont,” I had promised him.
But that was a week and a half ago, when my obsessive hunt for the Padaung had only begun. That was before I pointlessly scoured the markets of Kalaw. That was before I trekked for days through tribal forests, passing through villages with woven huts and unpronounceable names, where I managed to make a terrified little girl cry because my skin is white. I even spent four days wandering through Nyaungshwe, the buzzing epicenter of the ‘Human Zoo’ scene. But I couldn’t find a single Padaung.
So now I was here, at the exact place I promised Harri I wouldn’t go.
You might know the Padaung from the old photographs of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. You would recognize their long, slender necks, studded in brass rings, sometimes stretching a foot or more above their shoulders. The tradition of ‘neck-stretching’ is done to make the women ugly, so that, in theory, raiding tribes would be less intent on raping and kidnapping them. To Westerners, this logic might at first appear foolish and self-defeating—and that’s because it is.
Pedantically speaking, the women’s necks aren’t actually being stretched. Instead, the weight of the brass rings is gradually crushing the collarbones, pushing them downwards. As the girl grows older and more rings are steadily applied, her upper rib cage collapses, creating the illusion of a long neck.
It doesn’t take a doctor, or a third grader, to point out the serious health risks that this might pose. But still, the custom persisted well into the 20th century, when civil war ignited in Kayah State, and the Padaung were forced to abandon their blood-spattered homeland. Many refugees fled to Thailand and Inle Lake, where tourist companies offered them a salary and two meals per day to sit in souvenir shops, weaving their traditional clothing and smiling for the tourists.
“The way they’re treated in those shops, it’s like they’re animals in a zoo!” exclaimed Harri, as we trekked to Inle Lake. “Neck-stretching is a dead custom. The girls get pressured by their parents into wearing the rings, so they can get money by posing in pictures.”
“But what if they’re just trying to preserve their culture?” I mused, “Like those tribes in Africa that stretch out their lips.”
“I don’t know…” Harri shook his head.
“I guess I’ll just have to ask one,” I concluded, and upon my arrival to Nyaungshwe, immediately set out to track down a Padaung.
For such a conspicuous group of people, they were infuriatingly difficult to find. I reached out to tourism workers for answers, but my questions were always met with uncomfortable looks and awkward changes of subject.
I eventually managed to force a few reluctant words out of a Burmese tour guide, whom I’d cornered outside a silver shop. “Some girls in the village don’t wear the rings,” he told me shakily. “They look normal. The ones who wear the rings are trying to keep their heritage alive. It’s not just for the tourists…”
“If it’s not for the tourists then,” I queried, “Are there other girls who wear the rings that hold real jobs? Jobs that aren’t related to posing for photos?” The tour guide looked away awkwardly. I pressed on, “Like, are there any long-necked accountants or cocktail waitresses?”
“Well…” he began, before his French couple emerged with shopping bags, and he pounced on his window to escape. “Hey! You find nice silver, yes?” And that was the end of it.
So after a week and a half of fruitless searching, I finally caved in and arranged for a boat to take me to a ‘Human Zoo.’ I split the driver fee with a young, British backpacker from my guesthouse, Mark, who was really just looking for a pleasant morning on the lake.
But as our canoe drifted into Ywama, past rickety souvenir stalls and dilapidated cigar factories, I could tell this wasn’t what he’d had in mind.
“Long-Neck people,” stammered the boat driver, as our canoe finally docked, and he pointed to an open door…
The ‘Human Zoo’ wasn’t really a zoo at all. Instead we found ourselves in a dusty gift shop, surrounded with the typical clutter of Burmese parasols, lacquer-ware bowls, and creepy puppets.
In the far corner, behind the endless rows of junk, was a small, wooden corral, in which sat four Padaung women, clad in colorful tribal costumes, looking very, very pissed off. There were two young girls and two old women, their long, golden necks twinkling in the dim light of the shop. As the little girls sat idly, the women briskly knitted bolts of fabric, deftly maneuvering their arms, which dripped with chunky, silver bangles, clinking at every movement. Littered around their feet were primitive weaving tools and hokey tribal artifacts.
“Mingala’ba,” I greeted, “Enguhlayloh byawda thuhla?”
The women shook their heads.
“They don’t speak English,” grunted the man lurking over their pen, his teeth rotted and stained red from betel nut.
Outside the shop, an engine puttered to a stop, and a dozen shouting voices filled the air. Then suddenly the door burst open, and Mark and I were barreled over in a stampede of flashing cameras and muffin-tops. We were shoulder-deep in a tour group of sweaty, shrieking Korean women, swaddled in nylon jackets, face masks, cotton gloves, and UFO pants—better suited for a nuclear winter than the suffocating heat of the Burmese plain.
While the oldest Padaung woman fired a stream of angry glares from her stool, the other three women stepped out onto an adjoining porch, where the Koreans descended upon them like bees. They cackled and shoved their bazooka-sized lenses in the Padaungs’ faces, displaying no moral qualms in treating these unfortunate refugees like birthday clowns.
“This is awful,” muttered Mark.
We watched in horror as one of the Korean women, in a spectacular climax of cultural insensitivity, clamped her paws over the youngest Padaung girl’s head and forcibly angled it towards her friend’s camera for a picture.
It was in that moment that I did the only decent thing that I could do…
I started taking pictures of the Koreans.
Which, ironically, the Koreans didn’t seem to appreciate.
My camera lit up like a lightning storm, capturing each precious moment as their initial confusion turned to irritation, then indignation, and then full-blown rage.
One of the bigger, horse-faced women stepped up in my face.
“STOP! YOU STOP PICTURES! YOU MOVE, NOW!”
I grinned, turning to Mark. But he was gone.
I later found him waiting outside in the canoe, too appalled to watch any longer. I asked the driver to take us back to Nyaungshwe.
That night at the guesthouse, I sat with a beer, flicking through my pictures of the day. My trip to Ywama had been a miserable failure, and instead of an enlightening talk with the Padaung, I was left with a memory card filled with photos of angry Korean women. I was considering hiring a boat to take me out the next day to a different shop, where hopefully an English speaking Padaung could give me a truthful story.
But then I landed on a photo of the oldest woman, which I’d guiltily snapped on my way out. It had happened so quickly that before she could muster a smile and pose, my shutter clicked. Instead, what I captured was an honest expression. Her wiry mouth was curled in a slight pout, her face resigned, and her dark eyes brimming with both pride and shame. Or perhaps it was pain.
I stared at the picture for a long moment, before deciding not to take the boat out to Ywama again. I no longer needed to. I no longer needed to hear their story, because it was plastered across this woman’s face.
By going to another ‘Human Zoo’—by simply showing my face and expressing interest in the Padaung—I would only be reinforcing this exploitative practice, and in a way, dooming another young generation of Padaung girls to don their necks with golden shackles…
The next morning, I booked a bus ticket to Mandalay. I hear there’s a famous Burmese writer there under house arrest, who loves receiving foreign visitors, and showing them a Burma that the travel agents don’t want you see. It’s the real Burma, the Burma that’s been eluding me thus far…
At the very least, I won’t need to deal with any Korean tour groups.