The long neck tribe

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  • A ‘long neck’ Padaung Karen hilltribe woman poses for a photograph beside her back-strap loom where she is weaving scarfs. Her neck appears to be long, but in fact that is mostly an illusion. From an early age Padaung Karen females wear neck rings that actually deform their collarbones and push their shoulders down giving the illusion of a long neck.

    The Padaung Karen hilltribe people traditionally lived on the Thai-Burmese border, but conflicts with an oppressive Burmese government have forced many tribes to seek refuge in Thailand where the tribal people are not officially recognised as Thai citizens. That issue in turn means that tribespeople have limited means to integrate fully with Thai society or legitimately travel beyond its borders.

    The village I visited was made up of a series of pathways lined by wood and bamboo huts that were home to the villagers. Children were playing on bicycles and groups of villagers were cooking and eating together. Those that paid any attention to me smiled and greeted me warmly.

    However, as I walked around the village I couldn’t get away from the feeling that this felt somewhat fake. After all, I wasn’t deep in the jungle, I was in fact not that far from the city of Chiang Mai.

    My guide told me this was land allocated to the tribe by the Thai government which sounds fair enough, but I had to conclude that the land was strategically close to Chiang Mai specifically to cater to the tourist interest in these tribal people. With that in mind I found myself feeling somewhat uneasy with being in what amounted to something of a human zoo.

    If the Thai government wanted to help the tribal people, who have practices and traditions that require them to live in harmony with nature, then shouldn’t they allocate them land far away from the city and casual tourists?

    In the end I suppose there’s a tightrope between cultural tradition and rampant commercialism. The Padaung Karen hilltribe people are walking that tightrope though a series of events that, it might be argued, have led them to become as much a victim of their own traditions as they are of their circumstances.

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  • 5 comments on “The long neck tribe

    1. “Something of a human zoo”….very insightful writing Simon! I can’t help but gawk at the photo wondering what she looks like without all the neck-wear. Isn’t it interesting how differently we humans define ‘attractive’! Thanks, as always, for sharing. This photo won’t make my background, but only because it troubles me.

      • I should point out that this woman was very happy to let us take pictures and that the majority of the women there are actually very proud of their ‘long neck’ tradition. However, it’s generally outsiders who have realised their worth as a tourist attraction and that obviously puts them at risk of being exploited.

        This village didn’t feel at all sad and certainly the people we encountered seemed fine. I believe that the communities want to stay together, however, it’s their undefined status within the country that causes issues surrounding their onward mobility beyond the villages.

        If they were quickly moved to full refugee status then they would be free to resettle somewhere else. I am told that this issue troubles tribal elders who are worried that the young people would want to make their homes elsewhere in the world and that in turn would lead to such a depletion of tribal numbers that eventually their ways and traditions would fade away. I’ve also heard that the Thai government don’t want them to leave because of their obvious tourist value.

        The whole situation seems a little sad because it’s another example of the wider world encroaching on ‘old world’ ways and traditions. But then, perhaps that’s just the way of the world and the cost of human progress, right?

    2. “Something of a human zoo”, Susan beat me to it. nice post. I read them all, this one triggered a comment.

      • Nice to know you read them James. I did at least buy a couple scarfs from her. I didn’t need them, but they’ll make nice gifts. I think I was just buying them to offset my discomfort at visiting the place. That’s a shame though, because these people are on the whole very proud of their traditions.

    3. I believe, I’m just not sure if it is written here already, but they can’t support their own neck without that something on it right? Anyway, Simon, you are in Thailand right now? Nice!

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