Cultural experience or human zoo? Visiting a long neck village

A woman of the Padaung Tribe playing a guitar at her stall A woman of the Padaung Tribe playing a guitar at her stall

Recently on our road trip to Mae Hong Son, we visited the Padaung tribe in their village up in the North of Thailand. We hadn’t done much research on the Padaung (more commonly referred to by tourists as the long neck) traditions or the trip to the village itself, but after seeing many images of the local people, I really wanted to go there and see what it was all about.

Women of the Padaung tribe

Women of the Padaung tribe

The windy road to the long neck village was through thick rainforest and crossed over several small streams that flooded the road in several places. With little signage, it seemed we were going to a remote village rather than a popular tourist attraction.

Not a good start

We came to a small village where a few Thai locals were sitting outside their stalls and homes.  They all started pointing and smiling at us and we gathered we had arrived at our destination.  A local lady in a corner stall with the makeshift sign ‘Long-neck Information Office’ greeted us with an A4 piece of paper explaining the situation of the ‘long-neck’ people and the cost to enter the long neck village.

The admission of 250THB each to enter was a surprise since we hadn’t looked into any costs associated to the visit.  It was also particularly high compared to other tourist experiences around Thailand.  The lady explained all proceeds go to the villagers, its upkeep and to help continue their tradition.  We were sceptical, but we obliged and headed down the steep dirt path towards the village.

Not quite what we were expecting

The entrance to the village of the Padaung tribe.

The entrance to the village of the Padaung tribe.

A few meters into the walk, we were met with a line of about 12 stalls selling souvenirs and the typical Thai clothing aimed at travellers.  I was expecting to have a decent stroll on the dirt track before arriving at the village, but to my surprise a meter or two from this point we crossed a little wooden bridge and within a few steps we were there.  Not as remote as I thought.

It was quiet, not much happening and it seemed we were the first tourists for the day.  Then all of a sudden, one by one the Padaung women came out on cue as if someone had alerted them to our arrival.

The village was extremely quiet as we were the first of the tourists to arrive.

The village was extremely quiet as we were the first of the tourists to arrive.

We wandered along the dirt path past several stalls of which the women with the brass coil neck rings sat behind encouraging you to look at their souvenirs, hand woven shawls and a few hand made toys.  As we neared the end of the shopping strip, we asked one of the women where we go and she indicated we were at the end of the ‘village’.  Chris and I looked to each other, wondering where the cultural experience we had been hoping for was.

Jack was almost recruited!

We took our eyes off him for a second and before we knew it Jack was part of the tribe

We took our eyes off him for a second and before we knew it Jack was part of the tribe

One of the Padaung women took an interest in Jack and wooed him over to her by playing the guitar and before I knew it, he was wearing the coils around his neck.  I soon learnt it was common for tourists to try on the coil necklace for a photo opportunity.  But I felt slightly uncomfortable as if we were mocking their tradition.

She began to explain that girls from the age of 5 begin to have the coil rings wrapped around their necks by one of the elders.  They start with 4-5 rings and then every year as the girls grow, more rings are added.  It appears as though the women’s necks are being lengthened, but the illusion is created as the weight of the coils pushes down the collarbones.

This baby girl is destined to have the brass coils put on if she continues to live in the Padaung tribe.

This baby girl is destined to have the brass coils put on if she continues to live in the Padaung tribe.

The practice of wearing the brass coils dates back to the 11th century.  There are mixed thoughts as to the reasons why the Padaung people practice this tradition.  The Padaung’s mythology suggests traditionally it was a way of preventing tiger attacks.  It was later suggested the coils made the women less attractive to men from other tribes or slave traders.  But today it seems the reason for donning the coil neckwear has little to do with tribal customs.

The Long neck villagers aren’t allowed to leave, even if they want to!

The people of the Padaung tribe in Thailand are refugees from Burma after fleeing from the brutal military regime.  Approximately 500 people fled over two decades ago and now remain in three separate guarded villages near the northern Thai boarder.  As they are not able to legally work in Thailand, they earn a living of approximately 1500TBH ($AU50) a month selling their merchandise to the hordes of tourists coming through to see them.

One of the Padaung women  standing in front of her hand woven shawls

One of the Padaung women standing in front of her hand woven shawls

As this is a lucrative tourist attraction (remember the 250THB entry fee), it is believed Thailand’s authorities will not issue exit visas to the Padaung people who have been offered resettlement by countries such as New Zealand and Finland.  Those who are brave enough have removed their coils and left their villages and family in search of illegal work and a better lifestyle.  Then there are those that have fled Burma and have joined the Padaung tribes in the hope they can be safe from deportation if they become part of the tourist attraction.  These women experience the horrendous pain of having the coils put on as adults in desperation.

The housing of the Padaung village

The housing of the Padaung village

The three villages in Northern Thailand are said to have poor sanitation and no access to medical care.  If the long-neck women are overheard complaining to ‘outsiders’ about their living conditions, the pain of putting the coils on or their plight to seek resettlement, their pay is docked by those controlling the long neck village.  They have no freedom and appear to have no future outside the ‘long-neck’ tourist villages in Thailand.

A little sad really

A woman of the Padaung tribe

A woman of the Padaung tribe

The Padaung women appeared sad and slightly removed from the situation.  We were just another group of ignorant tourists coming to eye them off.  It was not too dissimilar to animals at a zoo, only in this case the exhibits were human.  I felt reluctant to take photos, but wanted to so I could document our experience and tell our story.

Our advice, don’t go

Women of the Padaung tribe

Women of the Padaung tribe

The village getting busier as more tourists arrive

The village getting busier as more tourists arrive

Having now spent the time researching the lives of the Padaung people in the villages of Northern Thailand, I regret my decision of going to the tourist attraction.  Tourism is keeping these villages alive and whilst I believe keeping traditions and education is important, in this case, this is not about culture and customs anymore.  The majority of these people are not happy and if Thailand weren’t making an income from this human zoo there would be a high chance the Padaung people would be treated like other refugees, issued with exit visas and given the opportunity to resettle in safer countries.

For me, this was a lesson learnt and in future I will research tourist attractions and their implications prior to going.  I urge you to think about the Padaung people before supporting Northern Thailand’s major tourist attraction by visiting the ‘long neck village’.

5 Comments on Cultural experience or human zoo? Visiting a long neck village

  1. A very thoughtful post… So many cultural traditions around the world seem brutal by our western standards. Then again, western women go to great and sometimes painful lengths to appear younger (e.g., plastic surgery). You make a good point though about how the Paduang refugees from Burma would likely be able to resettle elsewhere if Thailand wasn’t earning income from them. Very sad…

    • It’s true that we may not fully understand why some traditions exist when they seem to have a negative effect on inflict pain on the people. I don’t have problem with the brass coil tradition itself really, but for these tribes in Thailand, it is no longer about tradition or culture. It is more about survival.

  2. I completely understand you! I got the same feeling when we were visitng tribes in Ethiopia. Some villages got so used to the tourists that they basically don’t work anymore, they just take money from the tourist that want to photograph them. And when a group of tourists come it’s complete caos!

  3. here you go, I grew up in a refugee camp two miles away from this long neck village. Of course I wanted to be like them if I could ( making money showing their body which is better than our lives in refugee camp) my family settled to the United States after over decade of living in refugee camp. After have lived in US for couple of years I went back to Thailand as a tourist and found out that long neck village is one of a popular tourist attraction. I questioned my self, where is the future for these group of people. They may do this to keep their culture, show others but the main point is that they are there to basically attract tourists for Thailand.

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