The Padaung Women of North Thailand

I can’t even remember when I first heard about the long neck women of South East Asia- in fact it was so long ago that I did not even know where they were. All I knew was that they live somewhere in Asia, and that when I grew up one day I would travel the world, look for them, and see for myself how these ladies really are and live. Fast forward almost two decades and my boyhood dreams of adventure travel (read about my travel dreams here) were eventually fulfilled. But was the experience as exciting and breathtaking as I thought it would be? Unfortunately not so.

padaung woman thailand

One of the most important attractions in northern Thailand, the long neck women (also known as Pa Dong women or Padaung in Burma) in Mae Hong Son have become a tourist attraction the brings hundreds of visitors every day. North Thailand trips that include a stop here can be booked in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and even all the way from Bangkok, which is more than an overnight bus ride away, yet these women see very little money of all that is generated in their name.

karen lady

Why am I bringing this out today? A few weeks ago I got the following email from a reader:

Hi Frederico
I’m sorry to bring this up, but it is a HUGE issue and I wouldn’t feel right without
at least making an effort. Feel free to ignore this message if you wish.

It is about your picture :
https://www.maitravelsite.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/maitravelsite-in-thailand2.jpg

The padaung “long neck” women are exploited all over Thailand and Myanmar for
tourists who like to pose and take pictures with them. I’m not judging your own
preferences but posting such pictures will only encourage other tourists to do the
same and will lead to continued and increased exploitation of these women.

Would you please consider taking the picture off your site?

Thank you very much for reading, and I hope you do think about what I said.

If you would like to know more about this issue you can read the articles below:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/21/AR2009082101701.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7215182.stm

Regards,
Animesh

and it brought back memories of what I had seen when there. I have to admit that upon reaching the Padaung village after walking 5 minutes uphill from the parking lot my enthusiasm was violently slapped out of me, my heart sank, and I was instead dismayed at what I was seeing. The village in Mae Hong Son can only be described as a human zoo, where the long neck women spend a better part of their day sitting in flimsy wood huts waiting for tourists to come and take pictures with/of them. Maybe, if they’re lucky, somebody will give them a little bit of money in appreciation. Maybe, if they’re lucky, somebody will buy a souvenir from them. And if everything else fails, somebody will hopefully buy something from the handicraft stall at the end of the walk around the village, and together with that made by their husbands who are working in the fields they will make a living for themselves and their children.

padaun girl thailand

The controversial photo in full


The origin of why these women are here is well documented. In 1980 a group of about 100 Karen people fled across the mountains from Burma to Thailand when civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army became too intense. Since then the group has grown to about 520 people, and despite their current status the Thai government doesn’t consider them refugees and thus neglects certain rights that the UN Commission states should be granted. They also make very little money: women who wear the rings are paid 1500 Baht (49 USD) a month to run souvenir stalls and men receive a rice allowance of 260 Baht (8.5 USD) a month.

padaung girl in hut

When there I had two choices: get upset and simply walk around saddened about a shattered dream I had had since my childhood, or make the best of what there is and try to have a good time. I obviously went with option number two, although I couldn’t avoid having mixed feelings about the experience. I bought a souvenir to make me feel better and hopefully them too- a picture of themselves laughing without the brass collars ( by the way, in case you’re wondering, those brass collars do not make their necks longer- they are actually pushing the clavicles down, resulting in the long-neck appearance) I cannot share with you because I don’t have it with me and took several pictures along the way, deciding to use one of them as my profile photo because it blatantly shouts ” I am a traveler”.

However the email sent by Animesh has brought back those memories, and I think I will bring it down despite the meaning it has for me: eventually finding the long neck women I had wanted to see ever since I was a boy. What should I do?

Do you think I should bring the photo down? What were your feelings when you were there, and if you haven’t, will you go? Please share your thoughts below, and this article too if you liked it!

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