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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