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A Village, or a Zoo?
I Wanted to See Thailand's Long-Necked Women. Some Would Say That Makes Me Part of the Problem.

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.

"Where is the trail?!?" said the guide, Jakrapan Saengpayom, before turning to me. "Do you see it?" I did not. But after another hour plowing through dense brush that left our bodies covered in a nightmarish thorn known as butterfly grass, we arrived at our first village: the home of the Karen tribe, which is also originally from Burma.

What exotic sights did we see? Several women in T-shirts and shorts cutting thin strips of wood to make baskets. "They don't like to wear their costumes," Saengpayom told me.

We next headed to see a village of the Lisu, a tribe originally from Tibet that wears heavy, multicolored fabrics, and then the Akha, a tribe whose origins are traced to Mongolia and famed for their headwear of silver jewelry. Several villagers there wore traditional costumes, but most did not.

It was only when we arrived late that afternoon at a Palaung village that we saw nearly everyone wearing traditional garb. Or, more accurately, nearly all the women. One of the striking things about all the hill tribes I saw is that there are elaborate get-ups or anatomical distortions required for women, while the men wear essentially Thai clothes.

The traditional wardrobe for Palaung women is a red, saronglike dress with a blue or magenta jacket and towellike head covering. Most distinctive are the dozens of rattan rings that circle their waists.

Nae Naheng, 52, the matriarch of the family in whose house I spent the night, said the Palaung believe that women used to be angels in the past world, and that male hunters used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are never supposed to remove the rings. Naheng said she even sleeps in them and only briefly takes off the rings in the shower.

"Once I took them off when I was young, and I felt sick and very sad," she said. "If you do not wear the rings, your soul will get ill and you can die." But one member of the 300-person village does not feel that way. Joy Thaijun, 28, was wearing shorts and a T-shirt when I saw her. This annoyed my guide, who said that if the villagers stop wearing traditional costumes, tourists will stop coming to visit them.

"She is a lazy Palaung!" he said jokingly to her.

Embarrassed, Thaijun put on her costume and immediately tried to sell me some trinkets and handicrafts. After politely refusing, I asked her why she did not wear the costume.

"I am part of a new generation, and I do not like it. It is hot and uncomfortable," she said. But she noted that she might have to because the chief is considering forcing everyone to wear the costume. "If the chief orders us, we will do it." The chief of the village, a 52-year-old named Nanta Asung, told me that Thaijun was the only woman in the village who did not wear traditional dress and that her choice was unacceptable. "If you are Palaung, you have to wear the costume of the Palaung," he said while chopping pork for dinner. "This is a must. A must!"

Asung said they must wear the dress because of tradition, but he also spoke excitedly about its appeal to tourists and noted that half of the village's income of $30,000 a year comes from tourism. That night an Australian family was paying $15 to sleep in his hut. "He is very worried that visitors will stop coming," my guide, who served as my interpreter, told me as we left and headed to our own hut.

As we walked across the village, Asung began broadcasting over loudspeakers: "This is a reminder that all women should wear traditional dress. Some foreigners just came to complain that some women were not wearing their costumes." (We quickly returned to explain to the tribal chief that I was asking questions, not complaining, but, unsurprisingly, he did not issue a correction over the village intercom.)

After a dinner of chicken curry, raw pork and a jungle delicacy identified as minced mole, I asked our hostess if she felt forced to wear the costume because of visiting foreigners.

"I don't care about tourists," Naheng said. "This is our culture. Even if no tourists came, I would still wear it." The next morning I scrambled up on an elephant for an hour-long ride that left me sore all over (pachyderms, in case you were wondering, are not ergonomically designed) and a hour-long trip down the Ping River on a bamboo raft precariously held together by strips of rubber tire (I thought all was lost when the raft guide fell into the water after we bumped over some nasty rapids, but he recovered and got us to shore).

Eventually we arrived at our main destination, the village of the long-necked women. It was off a dirt road, and a man at a booth in the front charged us 300 Thai baht (about $9) a person to enter.

It didn't look like a village at all. We were ushered into a 50-square-yard collection of shacks where two dozen Padaung women sat and sewed or tried to sell their wares. There were no men in sight and only a handful of tourists during my two-hour visit.

The women were as breathtaking as I imagined. Their heads seem to float ethereally over their bodies. In person they looked less like giraffes than swans, regal and elegant.

But, of course, this was done by crushing and deforming their bodies. Did the Padaung women want to wear those enormous coils?

"We're not allowed to take it off because of our tradition," said Malao, a 33-year-old who, like most Padaung women, has only one name. She takes off the rings once a year to clean the brass and her neck, but that's it. "If I take it off for a long time, it is uncomfortable. My head aches, and I feel like my neck can't support my head."

Young girls typically start wearing about 3 1/2 pounds of brass coil around their necks and keep adding weight until they have more than 11 pounds. They also wear coils on their legs.

The women said the rings were painful when they were young but don't hurt now at all, and they said there are no health problems associated with wearing them. None of the Padaung I spoke to knew of any story or reason for wearing the rings. It was just a tradition, they said. (Other sources say the origin of the tradition is a Padaung legend that the rings protected children from being killed by tigers, which tend to attack at the neck.)

"Why do we wear the rings?" said Mamombee, 52, whose neck seemed particularly elongated. "We do it to put on a show for the foreigners and tourists!" I couldn't tell if she was joking.

But Mamombee said she doesn't like to remove them except once every three years to clean herself. "I feel bad when I take out the rings," she said. "I look and feel ugly."

There were no guards around, and it did not look to me as if anyone would physically stop the women from leaving. When I asked how they had arrived at this village, they said a man named U Dee, whom they referred to as "the middleman," first began bringing Padaung to the spot about three years ago. There are now about 50 families there, including some from a tribe known as "the long ears" because they stretch their lower earlobes by wearing enormous rings.

Some families said they were paid about $45 a month, while others were given a sack of rice. One orphan girl said she was not paid at all. All the women and girls tried to raise extra money by selling trinkets or charging money to be photographed.

The women are not allowed to leave the one-acre village. Groceries and other supplies are brought in by motorcycle every day. "We have to stay with the middleman," Mamombee said. "If I leave, he might call immigration." Does she want to escape? "I have no choice. If we leave, we will be arrested," she said. Their only option is to stay or pay U Dee money to be returned to Burma. But after pausing, she added: "I would much rather be here than in Burma." Burma, also known as Myanmar, is an authoritarian state led by a military junta and among the poorest countries in the world. None of the Padaung I spoke with wished to return to Burma, but several expressed a desire for more freedom of movement.

"I want to go out and see things, see the market, see the people," said Maya, 11, who escaped from Burma three years ago. "But I cannot." U Dee could not be reached for comment and did not respond to a message left for him at the village. But Helen "Lee" Jayu, a Lisu shopkeeper from the same tribe as U Dee, said that all the Padaung are in Thailand under U Dee's patronage and that there are no problems as long as no one leaves the area.

So is it unethical to visit the long-necked women? It is clearly true that money spent to visit them supports an artificial village from which they essentially cannot leave. On the other hand, many of them appeared to prefer living in virtual confinement as long as they are paid and safe. According to what they told me, their situation beats the alternative of living in a repressive country plagued by abject poverty and hunger.

I don't feel guilty about visiting the Padaung, but my feelings might be different if I had traveled solely as a tourist rather than as a journalist. And I certainly don't like their lot in life: Shouldn't everyone have the freedom to live and travel wherever they want?

The final stop on the visit was an orchid and butterfly farm outside Chiang Dao. The delicate, multicolored creatures would occasionally launch into the air, flying up, up, up until they hit the mesh cages of the farm. Then the butterflies would flutter down to one of the artificial stands and spread their wings. I watched as tourists gaped and snapped pictures of their natural beauty.

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