Tribal Women Attract Tourists in Thailand Amid Concerns About Exploitation

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

You can see almost anything in the world if you pay enough. So I was startled when a well-respected trekking company in northern Thailand flat-out refused my request to travel to a nearby village of a tribe called the Padaung.

"PLEASE DO NOT SUPPORT THIS VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS!" the company wrote me in an e-mail.

Nothing is simple when it comes to the Padaung.

The Padaung, commonly known as the long-necked women, are refugees from Burma famous for their giraffelike appearance, which is caused by brass rings coiled around their necks. Although it looks like the coils thrust their necks upward, the elongation is actually caused by the weight of the rings crushing their collarbones down. Ever since I glimpsed the Padaung as a child in my grandfather's National Geographics, I had wanted to see these curious women, who suffer painful disfigurement to emerge as graceful beauties.

But I had not known about the raging debate over the ethics of visiting this tribe.

Some trekking companies and human rights groups consider the Padaung villages, which stretch across northern Thailand, to be "human zoos" that exploit the women. There have even been reports that some of the Padaung are prisoners held captive in the villages by businessmen.

"Disgraceful stuff!" Annette Kunigagon, the owner of Eagle House Eco-sensitive Tours, wrote me in an e-mail. "We have been running culturally and environmentally friendly treks for 22 years and have never run treks to visit this tribal group as we would consider this exploitation as they have no rights. It is an easy trip to 'make' money out of, but this is not our interest!"

Were tourists really being taken to see virtual prisoners? And if so, would my visit encourage slavery by paying money to human traffickers? Or would I be able to sound the alarm if I saw real human rights violations? I ultimately concluded that if the villages really were so deplorable, my ability to write about them might ultimately help the Padaung more than harm them. I decided to go.

Almost any traveler who has ventured into nature or the developing world has to grapple with such moral dilemmas. Some people think it is cruel to swim with dolphins, because it forces the animals to be kept in captivity. Others refuse to visit authoritarian countries such as Zimbabwe, fearful that their tourist dollars will help prop up repressive regimes. And almost anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of an indigenous culture -- in the rain forests of Ecuador or the yurts of Mongolia -- has to be aware that the very presence of a foreigner likely alters and distorts typical native behavior.

But my entire trek through northern Thailand presented an unusually rapid succession of ethically ambiguous views of traditional culture and, in some cases, traditions continued perhaps solely for the sake of tourist dollars.

I was in the middle of a month-long grand tour of Southeast Asia and had set aside time for a two-day trek to see the Padaung and other hill-tribe villages near Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand. After several weeks of being rebuffed by companies that thought it was unethical to see the Padaung or would do so only over the course of four or five days, I eventually found a Chiang Mai company that would take me on a two-day trek to see the Padaung and four other hill tribes; the trip also included a journey on an elephant, a bamboo rafting excursion and an overnight stay in a village.

So that's how I found myself on a 90-degree day last month on the outskirts of a jungle in Chiang Dao, about 30 miles south of the Burma-Thailand border. There was lush green vegetation and fields of corn as far as the eye could see, and I expected any moment to see an exotic tribal village emerge in front of me. Then my guide suddenly stopped, and a look of alarm crept over his face.

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