The next time you are frustrated
waiting in traffic, or relaxing in the comforts of your 3000 sq.
ft. home, know that in Thailand, only a short distance outside of Chiang Mai,
there’s a Padaung Village. Having escaped from the Kaya
State in Burma in the last century, they are political refugees. This tribe belongs to the Karenni sub-group of the
Karen People, who have been fighting for their independence in Burma, Thailand’s
northwest neighbor. The Thai Government is permitting them to settle here,
though they are restricted as to what they can produce and are not allowed to
travel from this settlement area.
They are called the “Longneck
We learned of their existence and hired a driver to take us to their Village.
This community is so
remote, it was necessary for Chen to ask directions a couple of times in order to find them. A few kilometers outside Ban Mae Na, Near
Mae Rim, up a narrow winding concrete road we finally turned off onto a dirt path and
stopped. The sight of elephants told us we were near a village.
Built into the side of steep
terrain, there were beautiful vistas stretching out before us, and the Mae Ping river
This village was a collection
of small thatch huts built on stilts made of bamboo and teak, with an inside kitchen.
A typical Hilltribe Village.
Not typical were the
people living here.
There seemed to be two tribes
living together. They were called Kayor and Padaung. The Kayor had coins from a
previous civilization or government worn around their necks as jewelry and
a completely different style of adornment and clothing from the Padaung.
Hollow silver colored rings 5
cm in diameter pierced their ears. They, too, had brass rings around
their necks but not tightly woven like the Padaung.
Upon reaching the village,
we were greeted with warm smiles.
We lifted samples of these
solid brass rings and were shocked at their weight. Each girl wears 5 to 22 Kilos (11-45 lbs.)
of brass, depending on the number of rings around her neck.
This distorts the growth of their collarbones and makes them look as if they have
"long necks," which, in fact, they do not. The rows of brass rings do not
stretch their necks but, rather, the weight squashes the vertebrae and collar
bones. A woman generally has twenty or more rings around her neck. This neck ring
adornment is started when the girls are 5 or 6 years old, and is a long standing
tradition of their tribe.
Why would the ladies do this?
We heard many versions in explanation. One is that
the men consider them to be sexy and so therefore, it is in their culture to do
this - and another is that their own women will look so strange, the neighboring tribesmen
will leave them alone and not pursue them.
Other accounts say that the
heavy and shiny brass rings keep the spirits from killing the women who wear
them. Or that the jungle tigers, upon seeing the glittering
rings, will not eat them. The tigers cannot
carry them away by their necks, since the brass rings prevent them from doing
A tribal folklore variation say that these
the descendents from the wind and a ferocious dragon. The rings are a tribute to the
dragon. An additional translation is that other tribes have tried to make business in
Thailand, but didn’t have the brass rings on their necks. These brass rings
bring the Padaungs “good luck” and they hope to make better business by wearing them,
even though weaving is their livelihood.
We considered that the “good
luck” of the brass rings actually meant that because the women looked so
unique, more people would come to view them, thus making better business. This is what one of the women told
us - the good luck story, and that the rings are a reflection of their
culture. Whatever the reason, this is what they do, it is in their history and
tradition to do this.
We were invited into one of
their huts. Concerned that the split bamboo floor would not hold
our weight, we went in one at a time. The fact they were not Thai was obvious
because Thais "generally" do not cook in their homes.
The view from their "living
room" was fabulous.
For any member of these tribes to work in Thailand, they must speak Thai.
With our driver translating, it was acknowledged that this photo modeling was
the best opportunity that they have for making a living under the current social
condition in Myanmar and Thailand. If they were not here, they would be spending
endless hours in the rice fields
in Burma, which is arduous work. In this way, they only needed to pose for
photos and live their lives. It seemed to be an excellent option for them.
Readily smiling, their warmth
and humanity were close to the surface. There was no feeling of eyes being veiled to hide something about themselves from us. No sense of
shame or of having been abused by Western visitors. There
is no difference
between this and ethno-tourism or tribal trekking where you can go and take
photos of indigenous tribes. At least here, the money you pay to visit
them supports their livelihood.
All of us noticed that they
were engaging and present. There was no manner of disgust or idea
that we were taking advantage of them by snapping their photos. They considered
this to be business. They were working, supporting their families by allowing us
to see into their cultures.
We have been to many
hill tribe locations to understand that doctor’s care, or dentists as we would know
them are nowhere to be seen. We can tell just by looking, that the immune systems
of these hilltribe people must
be very strong to have survived what would take most of us down in the first
week of living among them. This is especially true during this recent rainy season.
The weavings they sold were
simple, but the unequaled item they offered was to see them in their traditional
Gentle and peaceful, the Karen
have a village chief who rules over their community. He is considered the
spiritual as well as the administrative leader, and he wields great influence.
Practicing monogamy, most families are nuclear and they represent the most
important basic unit in their society.
The Padaung's legs were also in
rings, with silver bracelets running up their arms.
Are the Longnecks a tourist
Depending on the mentality with which you travel, learning about people in different cultures
is never a trap. Upon leaving the Padaung village we had regrets of not being able
to stay longer getting to know them better as people. We had heard so much about
their exploitation and that concerned us, so this visit was exploratory. It was
successful enough to plan a return visit.