Three days seemed few for Chiang Mai. The last two days had vanished in a wink. With only a day left in hand, Sam and I decided to opt-in for a package tour to cover the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), the hot springs, a visit to the Karen tribal village all the way to the Golden Triangle where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet and a hop onto Laos for a village experience. It was going to be one hell of a long day but we were ready to make the most of it.
The Long Neck Women
The lives of the Karen Long Neck tribe have intrigued people from all over the world. For tourists, these tribal women with giraffe-like, long necks make for an interesting stopover. The price to enter the village is not included in the tour package. After paying 300 baht per person, we entered rows of huts with women working quietly on the loom, weaving or doing embroidery. Colourful bags, hats, dolls, water bottle holders, embroidered tablecloths hung for sale. Unflustered by the groups of tourists who hover around them for photographs or stare at them, they continue posing for a picture or continue doing their work: courteous, smiling and decorous.
“The long neck is an illusion,” says Somchai, our tour guide. “When you wear the collar it’s not that the neck gets longer but the shoulders that get pushed down and lowered. As the coil gets longer it pushes weight on the shoulder and chest.” In every stall, a coil neckpiece lies with a string attached for tourists to try on. I did and couldn’t hold for long. Darn! It was heavy. I just cannot fathom how these women have been wearing it their whole lives. I learn that the process starts when they are 5-6 years of age and start wearing 3-4 coils. By the time they’re 18 they are wearing 15 coils. The weight of the coils could go up to 3 kgs. One of the old women had an exceptionally long neck and wore 26 coils. Unbelievable! I stood and actually counted them.
Why did the tradition begin?
There are varying explanations for the wearing of coils. While nothing is documented, it’s from one generation to the next that the women have worn them as a mark of cultural identity. Some consider it to be a sign of beauty. There are a few who believe that it protects them from the claws of a tiger when attacked. Whatever be the reason, the Long Neck women have their own distinct identity in the world.
More than two decades ago, due to political unrest in Myanmar, the Karen residents fled the country and settled in Thailand as refugees. Today approximately 500 of them live in their camps on the Northern Thai border. The famous “long neck women” of Thailand are an offshoot of the Burmese Kayan ethnic group called the Padaung Tribe. They instil a cultural curiosity that drives people long distances to see them. The lives of the tribe are trapped in a “Catch 22′ situation. They are illegal immigrants in Thailand and cannot go back to their country either. The women can’t relocate because that would involve removing the neck coils that they are identified with. It’s a question of retaining the tradition that brings them money through tourism or to venture out to establish a life in a country that has no interest in their education or rightful wages. The Thai Village Officials want to keep them as primitive as possible to encourage tourism to the village.
A Tribal Village or a Human Zoo?
With long brass coils around their necks, forearms and shins, the Padaung women are seen with awe and people flock around villages to get a whiff of their lifestyle.The tourism industry flourishes in Chiang Rai. As I turned to look back I caught Somchai take his commission for bringing us here. How much does really reach the tribal people? Is it ethical to take this tour which objectifies these women? Are they being forced to wear these coils? While the new generation of Padaung is not keen to don these coils, there are also few who delve into this custom with pride. In the tours, visitors bustle around these tribal women for a few shots. Not many buy the handicrafts. it would be great to support their efforts at self-sufficiency by buying their handicrafts and trinkets. It is also a way to encourage them to preserve their traditional handicrafts and skills. It is evident that while it is beautiful they continue to keep their traditions alive, it is also their struggle to balance the new world with the old.