Although most tribal refugees from Burma's frontier war are unwelcome in Thailand, two women of the Padaung tribal group who sought refuge have been encouraged to stay on - as tourist attractions. Thai authorities actually "negotiated" to keep them in Thailand, while repatriating other tribespeople to the Burma war zone. The Padaung is the tribal group of the "long-necked women," and two of them had become, through a series of coercions, a lucrative tourist draw at Thailand's Mae Hong Son Resort.
"The Land of the Giraffe Women"
The Padaung are an ethnic group related to the Karen and Karenni, indigenous only to the Kayah State of Burma. They cultivate rice in the mountains just south of the town of Loikaw. There are about 7,000 Padaungs in Burma. They call themselves Kekawngdu or Kayan, but other ethnic groups in Burma and foreigners know them as Padaung. Most of them are animists, with belief systems similar to Karen animists. Their oral history holds that they had been a matrilineal society until tribal warfare killed so many men that polygamy had to be instituted. Practices such as an unusual degree of male involvement in delivering babies and in child care are considered remnants of the old way of life. Polygamy is no longer common, and some Padaungs have converted to Christianity.
In their most distinctive custom, beginning at about five years of age, many Padaung girls have their necks wound with spirals of brass. (In earlier days, copper and gold were used as well.) A bedinsayah (spirit doctor) puts the coils into place on a day determined by divination to be auspicious. The first spiral, put on a girl at the age of five or so, is usually about four inches high; in approximately two years, another coil is added. Coils are then added sporadically until a limit of 21-25 is reached, at the age of marriage. The spiral may reach to a foot in height and weigh 20 pounds; this gives the illusion of a stretched neck, but the actual effect is that of pushing down the collarbones and rib cage to distort the chest and slope the shoulders.
The Padaung have said that this practice originated to protect women from tigers, which often attack a victim by biting the neck. The custom has been maintained as a symbol of wealth and status, which in turn enhances marriageability, and as an assertion of a woman's identity and beauty. This special identity, paid for in some initial pain and considerable discomfort, has not been found to create health problems. It does severely hamper mobility in conjunction with brass coils wound around the ankles and calves up to the knee. The weight and pressure of the leg spirals can make walking slow and stiff, and the Padaung women have to contend with the challenges of steep mountain rice fields and ladders leading to their stilt-supported houses. Padaung women with the full leg spirals often must sit with their legs thrust straight out in front of them, and because of the neck spirals, they must drink with long straws.
Once in place, the neck spirals are rarely, if ever, removed. Due to the duration of their wear, the neck must be propped up with a brace until the muscles can recover their strength. Removal is said to have been used as a punishment for adultery; unbraced, the woman's neck would flop over and she would suffocate. Since World War II, as the Padaung have become less isolated from neighboring Karen and Karenni, the neck spiraling process has been on the wane. Some Padaung women have removed their rings after converting to Christianity, and others have simply rejected the practice as antiquated and cumbersome. Many mothers who currently wear the rings have decided not to continue the practice on their daughters.
The Padaung's own opinions of the practice have been of little importance to the world outside their mountain home. The area around Loikaw was dubbed "the land of the giraffe women," and the women have aroused the curiosity of explorers and tourists since Burma's days as a British colony. In the 1930s, Sir George Scott wrote, "It is the get-up of the women that makes the Padaung the best-known of all the tribes. In fact this has led latterly to their being brought down to Durbars for viceroys and distinguished visitors to look at." In Burma's early days of independence after World War II, travelers went to Loikaw in hopes of seeing Padaung women trading in the marketplace there or hired jeeps to reach their villages. With the takeover of Burma by General Ne Win's military dictatorship in 1962, however, insurgency flared in Kayah State, and raids by mountain-based Karenni rebels caused Loikaw and its environs to be closed to tourism.
In spite of the inaccessibility, photographs and paintings of Padaung women continue to be used by the Burmese government tourist agency in its advertising brochures and posters, and their image has been popular on Burmese crafts made for tourists. Occasionally one or two Padaung women were brought to a town where tourists were permitted, such as Kalaw or Taunggyi in Shan State, so that tourists could observe and photograph them. This practice was quite limited, however, and for all intents and purposes by the 1980s Padaung women in neck spirals had vanished from the world's sight.
The Tourism Craze
Decades of warfare in Kayah State have displaced tribal populations. Attacks by the Burmese Army on valley dwellers suspected of aiding the rebels forced many into the mountains, and raids on mountain villages pushed fleeing tribespeople across the Salween River, closer and closer to the Thai border. The Burmese Army's counterinsurgency tactics in Kayah State (documented by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations) have included beatings, torture, rape, summary executions, forced labor, and destruction of entire villages. The Padaung, as an ethnic group suspected of sympathizing with Karenni rebels' fight for autonomy, have been subjected to abuse by the Burmese Army. Some Padaung men have responded by joining the Karenni rebel army.
In the mid-1980s, the Karenni rebels maintained a headquarters on the Pai River, just across the border from the Thai provincial capital of Mae Hong Son. The town of Mae Hong Son and the surrounding province are inhabited mainly by Shan and tribal people related to ethnic groups of Burma, but there is a large Thai Army presence and a provincial administration that is mainly composed of ethnic Thai. The Karenni rebels had an uneasy relationship with the Thai authorities; they were dependent on access to Thailand for supplies and for the black market trade in consumer goods, timber, minerals, and livestock to finance their resistance army.
In 1985, a Padaung man named Moli brought three Padaung women, in their twenties and thirties and wearing the traditional neck spirals, from a contested area in the war zone near Loikaw to the relative security of the Karenni base. The women, Mu Louma, Mu Thoo, and Mon Nee, were said to have traveled so far from their original villages under pressure from Moli. Privately, some Karenni at the headquarters said that the three had been "kidnapped" by Moli, who saw their potential as a tourist attraction for visitors near the Thai border. The women settled in at the rebel army base, staying with Padaung men who were in the Karenni army. The women told the local Karenni villagers that they would not continue the neck spiraling custom with their daughters - possibly influenced by Christian Karennis' opposition to the practice.
The Karenni base was easily accessible from the Thai side of the border by narrow, wooden motor boats. A few journalists ventured there to cover the frontier war, including a French photographer who published photographs of "les femmes girafes" in European magazines. Something of a tourist craze followed, and the Karenni rebels acceded to the demand by foreigners to see the Padaung women. Arrangements were made with Thai companies that ran "tribal trekking tours" out of the northern Thai city of Chiangmai. Trekking was quite a growth industry at the time; small groups of tourists were crisscrossing northern Thailand on foot, in all-terrain vehicles, and even by elephant in order to visit the mountain villages of tribal people. Many of the indigenous groups in Thailand were essentially composed of refugees from Burma who had settled on the Thai side of the border in the years following World War II. Thai and tribal entrepreneurs based in Chiangmai promoted visits to peoples such as the Lahu, Lisu, and Akha as an affordable and exotic travel experience.
The trekking tours were often advertised with a lack of sensitivity ("See real primitive hilltribes in the Thai jungle") that extended to the conduct of the guides and tourists. Trekkers intruded on and disrupted tribal life, encouraged opium abuse, and harassed tribal women. Many tribal villages transformed themselves into virtual souvenir stands pandering to tourist dollars. The less pristine the trekking experience became, the more its popularity grew, and in 1988 alone, more than 100,000 tourists signed up for "jungle tours."
Not "Animals in a Zoo"
Political constraints generally prohibited the tours from entering neighboring Laos or Burma, but the Pai River was an exception. Chiangmai's more "deluxe" tour agencies began offering a "Special Tour to Burma," which included a boat ride on the Pai River to view the Padaung women at the Karenni base. Above the tour price, each tourist had to pay a Thai "departure tax" at a small customs post on the river, and then ante up an additional $20 to the Karenni rebel administration. Most of that payment was then kicked back to the Thai authorities by the Karenni. The tour groups would usually stop at a Karenni village for a short talk by an English-speaking Karenni officer about the political and military situation of Kayah State, and then would proceed upriver to the Padaung settlement.
The boat tour became extremely fashionable with foreign and Thai tourists during 1985 and 1986. At the height of the tourist season (winter and spring, before the monsoon rains) several boatloads arrived at the Karenni base each day. The tourists rarely stayed overnight, the usual visit to the Padaung camp consisting of a photo session of fewer than 30 minutes. One of the Padaung women had gone back to her home area, but the two that remained were on call for tourist arrivals throughout the day. The result was generally a disquieting encounter between embarrassed tourists and sullen Padaungs. The women shifted poses like extremely bored fashion models, and the tourists snapped away with their Nikons and Canons and zoomed in with their camcorders. The Karenni rebels' introductory lecture tried to give the affair a political overtone, but when the boat tourists came ashore at the Padaung camp there was no pretense of "cultural exchange" or learning experience. The Padaung women were a photo opportunity for an endless succession of outsiders - nothing more.
Mae Hong Son officials were not unaware of the Padaung women's worth as a tourist attraction. When the annual Mae Hong Son Winter Fair was to be held, they demanded that the Karennis bring the women to be exhibited. The fair featured booths showing the crafts and customs of various tribal groups in the province, as well as the "Miss Hill Tribe" beauty contest, notorious for the postcontest auction of teenaged contestants to provincial administrators and police. The Karennis protested that the Padaung women were not "animals in a zoo," but the Thais threatened to shut down the Karenni black market trade, and the women were brought to the fairgrounds. Both nervous - one ill with stomach cramps - they spent the next three days in a walled enclosure. They did needlework and studiously ignored the fairgrounds who bought tickets to enter the enclosure and observe them.
The Padaung women were returned to the Karenni base and the boat tours continued. Then Thai officials from Chiangmai came to the Karennis to request the Padaung women's presence at a tourist fair in their city. The Karenni rebels refused this time, fearing that the Padaung women would disappear forever if they were sent as far away as Chiangmai. Thai threats went unheeded. Soon thereafter, the Karenni base was attacked and temporarily occupied by Burmese troops. The Karennis believed that the Thais had turned over information about their base to Burmese intelligence agents in retaliation for their refusal to send the women to Chiangmai.
In 1987, the Karenni base was again overrun by Burmese troops, and the local civilians fled by boat to a small village just over the Thai border. During the Burmese raid the Karennis became suspicious of Moli's actions, and he was executed as a spy. Although the Karennis retook the headquarters camp, some of the civilians remained in the refugee village on the Thai side, including the Padaung women. The trekking tours then visited the Padaungs on Thai soil. The upscale Mae Hong Sin Resort began to advertise "Padawn Hilltribe now available."
The Padaung women remained in Thailand under the sponsorship of the Mae Hong Son Resort. Their increased accessibility led to tour bus visits and features such as a board painted with a picture of a Padaung woman that had the face cut out so tourists could have their picture taken in its place. When tourists complained about the Padaung women's aloof attitude, the women were made to sing and play the guitar for the visitors. Although there were accusations that the Padaung women were being used as a freak show or circus attraction, their celebrity increased and they were promoted as a tribe of Thailand. Most of Chiangmai's trekking tour agencies displayed the women's pictures in front of their offices to attract tourists. The Padaung women meant an increase in the price of any tour that visited them, and one budget traveler was heard to remark, "I'm not going to see them, I've heard it's a bit of a rip-off-their necks aren't really all that long."
In February 1989, following heavy fighting between Karenni rebels and the Burmese Army, which sent Karenni civilians over the border to Thailand in large numbers, Mae Hong Son's assistant governor, Somprath Saowapaiboon, announced that the Karenni refugees would be repatriated - by force if necessary - in March, along with student dissident refugees who had joined them on the border. the Padaung women and their children could stay, however. "We are afraid that they will follow the Karen and the Karenni back to Burma because the Padaung people have been under the rebels' protection," Somprath said. The Padaung women would be offered temporary border passes so that they could stay near the Mae Hong Son Resort "to promote tourism." They were scheduled to appear at a "Northern Provinces Cultural Relations and Promotions Fair" to be held in Mae Hong Son in April. Mae Hong Son's public relations officer, Chanerin Samintarapanya, told the Bangkok Post that "the long-necked Karen hilltribe called Padawn is expected to attract a large number of visitors to the fair."
Having endured enough flashbulb-popping tourism, the Padaung women threw in their lot with the pushed-back Karenni refugees, only to be exposed to Burmese artillery fire when the base on the Pai River was attacked again in July 1989. A major offensive was launched against the Karenni rebels, including an incursion into Thailand by troops that took up positions to attack them from the rear. Thai shelling drove the Burmese intruders back into Burma, but there were friendly meetings between Burmese and Thai officers at the time of the withdrawal. As a result, the Burmese troops have been able to occupy the Karenni base instead of the usual burn-and-retreat strategy. As of September 1989, the Burmese Army on the Pai River has been getting its supplies from Thailand - trading for rice with Thai merchants and upgrading their arms with purchases from Thai black market weapons dealers. The Karenni rebels have gone into underground guerrilla squads in other areas of Kayah State. Student refugees and tribal civilians are once again camped in the jungle on the Thai border, vulnerable to being forced back to the guns of the waiting Burmese Army.
Among the students from Kayah State in the refugee camp is a young Padaung man who has reportedly won a scholarship to Cambridge University and obtained the travel documents necessary to get there. Among the other refugees in the makeshift camp are the two padaung women with the brass-spiraled necks. They are still featured in Mae Hong Son Resort advertisements, on Chiangmai trekking tour posters, and on Thai postcards that claim "the longnecked hill tribe is a minority that lives in the north of Thailand's mountains." On 17 July, The Nation, a Thai newspaper, carried a photograph of Mu Louma washing some dishes in front of a tent. Her tourist pictures had always showed her gazing slightly away from the camera, detached, closed off. But in the Nation photograph, this woman, this refugee, has at last allowed herself to give a distinctly hostile glare.
Evans-Pritchard, E., ed.
1973 Peoples of the Earth: Southeast Asia. The Danbury Press.
1979 Burma's Long-Necked Women. National Geographic.
1932 Burma and Beyond. London: Grayson & Grayson.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Since 1972 Cultural Survival has been advocating for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supporting Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.