Meeting a Real Padaung Giraffe Woman 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 a giraffe woman really looks like and lives. 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 that 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 (it’s not a day trip from Bangkok though), 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? One day 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 handcraft 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 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  brought back those memories, and I brought 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 kid. 

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!

Leave a Reply 27 comments

Iñigo - January 11, 2012 Reply

I didn’t know that padaung womwn were exploted. Thank you for the information!

    maitravelsite - January 11, 2012 Reply

    You´re welcome!

guy@skull rings - August 24, 2011 Reply

Fantastic photos and great explanation of what you saw. These women have taken to carry on a tradition. I would rather not see such a young girl who had no say in the matter to carry on though.

Lawrence Michaels@Phuket Beach - July 26, 2011 Reply

I’ve never visited any of the long necked tribes in Thailand. There is actually one near my home in Phuket, although it probably isn’t the same as those up north. I have always been fascinated by them, but after reading your comment about the “human zoo’s” I don’t think I really want to go visit them.

    maitravelsite - July 27, 2011 Reply

    They are certainly not as fascinating as one would hope them to be.

Haley - May 27, 2011 Reply

Vere interesting information about Thailand’s culture,Laura.Thanks for your sharing

Erica - February 23, 2011 Reply

I have quite the dilemma coming up as well when it comes to seeing traditional Mayan villages. I don’t think I’m going to go, but I do think that the picture highlight what exactly is going on there. At least people will be more educated on the matter before going to see them?

    maitravelsite - February 25, 2011 Reply

    I have not seen traditional Mayan villages…are there any left?

Jamie - February 22, 2011 Reply

I think because it is such a foreign culture for so many Western tourists that they don’t quite realize the situation at hand. When you are a stranger in a strange land your are hesitant to judge other cultures.

    maitravelsite - February 22, 2011 Reply

    And perhaps if you’re not an experienced traveler you cannot appreciate what is and what should be.

Caz Makepeace - February 21, 2011 Reply

A really interesting dilemma. I’m not sure what I would do. There are places like this around the world. When we stayed with the Masai in Kenya it felt a little like this as well. Tourists would come, take photos, do the dance and be on their way. I found it a really interesting experience and I learned a lot about their customs and way of life.
Of course, I spent money there in order to help them. I think if you go to these places with the intent to learn and share, then you should feel okay about documenting it. As long as you don’t treat them like they are animals in the zoo and talk to them about their lives.
As Laura mentioned this is how many tribal people put food on their tables these days.

    maitravelsite - February 22, 2011 Reply

    Now that you mention it, I can imagine the Masai show being as you describe. Truth is that we are not really seeing what they actually do, but are instead watching a show. Which I guess is fine too- we wouldn’t let strangers into our houses with cameras…

Michael Hodson - February 19, 2011 Reply

such interesting photos and stories — thanks for sharing

Michael Hodson - February 19, 2011 Reply

such interesting photos and stories

Ed - February 11, 2011 Reply

I can definitely relate with you Federico, I understand how it is be caught up in the situation wherein you might ask if this is the moral thing to do or not. Even up to now, it’s still a tough call on my end. I’m not even sure if blurring the faces would be applicable as the thought of posting these are there. According to what I’ve learned, when the alleged subject will complain and ask you to take it down, you need to take it down. The thing here is that these women, most likely, can’t complain. I just hope that with the money that they get, they’re compensated well.

“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.” — I also want to visit this place too.

    maitravelsite - February 11, 2011 Reply

    Hi Ed, thanks for your words. In a way these ladies don’t mind having the picture take, in fact they like it because it means money for them and can mean more. But the setup is nothing like what it should be; when there it doesn’t feel like a poor and small town but like a basic human zoo, where the ladies are on display instead of living a life. I hope you can visit it too, and it would be great to know what you think.

Aleah - February 11, 2011 Reply

Instead of just taking the picture down, why don’t you become an advocate of the Padaung women? As you said, there are a lot of tourists there; most certainly they will post these things. Simply taking your picture down would not benefit them; there are hundreds of other pictures online. But you have a good site, one that’s visited by a lot of people. You could certainly make a difference.

    maitravelsite - February 11, 2011 Reply

    I like the idea, and I am not the only one as you can see from the text links. Because of this I brought the issue out, and those who read it before getting there may keep an eye out for what they see. But then, as Laura pointed out, what will happen if tourists stop going there? The lades won’t make money and then…?

      Aleah - February 11, 2011 Reply

      I saw a South Asian national throw garbage on the streets of Manila once. I asked him (a medical doctor) why he did that; he could have easily thrown it in the trash can. He told me that if nobody threw litter on the street, the street sweepers would be out of a job. So what will the Padaung women do? Find another way to earn, I suppose. I don’t know really; I don’t know how they feel being ogled like animals in the zoo. Do some of them want another life but can’t because they’re required to stay there and smile for the tourists? I don’t know 🙂

        maitravelsite - February 14, 2011 Reply

        An interesting dilemma. I guess the only way of finding out would be speaking with them…

Andrea - February 10, 2011 Reply

Very interesting issue and I agree that it is good that you posted about it. I’ve been travel blogging a year now and I just know that a situation is going to come up where I have to consider whether it is a good idea to post a photo or not. Any person you photograph could arise as an issue for whatever reason. In particular, I think photographs of children, whether artistic or whatever are a bit touch and go in the ethics department if their faces are shown. I don’t know what the right answer is here. If you leave the photo up with this post discussing the issue, perhaps it is okay? Could you link to a charity (I don’t even know if there is one for this cause) that helps these women and solicit donations? As a standalone shot, though, I think it would need to come down.

Elise - February 10, 2011 Reply

You said it all so well Laura!

At the end of the day, it is how you feel about the photos as to what you wish to do with them. Thanks for the interesting post though

    maitravelsite - February 10, 2011 Reply

    I agree, and am pleased you liked th post

dtravelsround - February 9, 2011 Reply

Very interesting and honest post. I agree with Laura … it was good that you addressed the issue. However, like Laura, I think I would remove the photo, too.

    maitravelsite - February 10, 2011 Reply

    I am very sure I will, but it’s good to hear what you have to say 🙂

Laura - February 9, 2011 Reply

I really liked the fact that you called attention to this issue first, rather than just taking the photo down and saying nothing. For those who have traveled a lot, we’ve all been in a situation where it felt like a complete set up or we’ve participated in activities that are questionable. You can’t be ashamed in the fact that you’ve done it… you have to learn from it and move on. Personally, I would take the photo down, because if you don’t stand behind what is happening, then it’s not a real representation of you. Of course, I could open up a can of worms at this point and throw out “Well what will happen to these women if tourists stop visiting? How will they survive?” but that’s probably left for another discussion 🙂

    maitravelsite - February 10, 2011 Reply

    Upon receiving the email my first reaction was to remember the visit and bring it down, but on a second thought I contemplated your final question too. If tourists stopped visiting the village and the Padaung women stopped making the little money they do, would the Thai government reconsider their situation and respond in a humanitarian way? I am sure that many backpackers like you and I have been there, and probably left with sorrow, but hearing opinions directly is much better and emphasizes the issue. Thanks for the well elaborated response!

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