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The Padaung Longnecks…

Human Zoos or just some folks trying to make a buck? Or both?

The Padaung "longnecks" are certainly one of the more interesting anthropological attractions one can see in Asia. That's hardly a particularly PC introduction to a story now is it? But then again the whole ethics of visiting these villages and paying money for the privilege does inspire a bit of debate. In fact, the whole concept of visiting any hilltribe village is subject to debate.

First of all, I want to address the idea of paying money to visit a hilltribe village. Any village. A lot of folks balk at the notion of paying admission fees to enter villages. "Human zoos," they cry indignantly, "I will not be part of this." Having then proffered their sermon the "correct" tourist inevitably seeks out a Mae Hong Son trekking agency, complains about the cost, searches for a cheaper one, ultimately signing up for a four-day hilltribe village trek, self-righteously satisfied that he or she is not paying to see any of these villages. Well, you're right, you're not paying.

As a matter of fact, you aren't doing anything for the villages you're visiting because you made such a fuss over the price that by the time the trekking agency deducts for its costs and takes a profit it can survive on, well, there really is nothing left for the very villages you visit! Do you somehow purify the trekking experience by not paying directly to the village to help support what you came to see? End patronizing rant.

There are, however, additional issues with the Padaung villages that make the situation, to me anyway, much less black and white. The longneck Padaungs are refugees from Myanmar. One of the guidelines set forth by the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) is that refugees may not be placed on public display. I've seen how this requirement is manifested as in February 2002 in Ratanakiri province Cambodia, I passed by a Montagnard refugee camp where a large sign not only informed of the prohibition of entry to the camp but forbade photography of the camp as well from inside or outside. This regulation was easily enforced as the camp was set up in such a way that even standing surreptitiously at the camp's periphery with a 600mm lens would still yield little if any results.

So, problem number one. These villagers shouldn't, under UNHCR regulations, be on display. But they are on display and they are a very popular tourist attraction making a lot of money for Thailand and certainly for Mae Hong Son province. The village also makes money as the admission fees charged, 250 baht for foreigners (no charge for Thais and that's another issue I'll address) is, in theory, supposed to be collected and used by the village. Not to insinuate anything, but I have no idea how these funds are ultimately used. There are also collection boxes scattered around the villages that again, are in theory, for the benefit of the village.

In December 2002, I visited one of the longneck refugee villages, Nai Soi, to be exact, which is quite possibly the most commercialized for tourism village of them all. Drive about 25 kilometers northwest of Mae Hong Son town on a paved road and add a final kilometer and a half on easily covered dirt road and you're there along with dozens of other tourists, mostly Thai.

The real issue, which supersedes any UNHCR regulation, is not what we want or the UN wants, but what do the villagers want? Are the villagers satisfied spending their days posing for photographs and hawking souvenirs? Do they feel exploited? Is the placement of neckrings on all the young girls reflecting a long-standing tradition or is it being abused and exploited for the financial gain of others?

I talked at length with one eighteen-year-old girl who seemed content with her situation. Ideal? No, of course not, but in her words, the best she could hope for in Myanmar is backbreaking farm labor for next to nothing in return (she insinuated that she was essentially slave labor in Myanmar). In Nai Soi, her life of souvenir selling and posing for photos is at least comfortable. Life could be worse. She told me the longneck tradition as an integral part of her identity and one which she is proud of. Aware that it's a highly unusual situation, she can live with being a tourist attraction. And she can talk with foreigners and learn a bit of their world as well, something she could never have done in Myanmar. She added further that they've been able to attend school here and purchase supplies with the money they make.

But while this young woman's contentment and optimism is refreshing, is it indicative of all members of the village? Does this reflect her true feelings or is it something she's been told to say? It was hard to get a straight answer. I tried talking to some other young women who, at least by facial expressions, seemed less than thrilled at the idea of sitting outside all day posing for photographs, which by the way, they do not ask any additional money for, nor do they refuse photographic requests. But do they have a choice?

From the longnecks wearing long faces answers weren't forthcoming. Any suggestion I made as to whether this really was an enjoyable existence or not were met only with shrugged shoulders and downcast looks.

I walked away with the impression that this is as much of a divisive issue among the villagers as it is with those of us on the outside. I support self-determination. If the villagers choose to spend their time selling souvenirs and posing for photos, then they have every right to do so. However, those that would choose not to must have their rights respected as well.

But respecting these women's rights goes further because we are not just talking about selling souvenirs and posing for photos, we're talking about physical mutilation. The neckrings are heavy. Contrary to some beliefs, they do not actually elongate the necks, but press down on the collarbone and ribcage and if you see an older woman, say 40 years old or so, you can see this in their body structure in the form of a seemingly expanded ribcage.

The placement of neckrings is a gradual process that begins at a young age (see photos at the top) and as the women get older, larger heavier rings, weighing up to several kilograms (two to three is apparently the norm), replace the smaller ones. Given that the ritual begins at a young age and that most of the girls in the village wear them, it seems self-evident that it is not a voluntary decision to have them. While the one girl I referred to before said that the neckrings were a tradition she was proud of, my understanding (and I will stand corrected if I'm wrong) is that the rings are ideally not supposed to be placed on all women, but only those where some particular auspicious event surrounds their birth. And if that is the case then it seems clear, given that a majority of girls wear rings, that we have what could be classified as a case of physical mutilation of young women for financial benefit. And whose benefit?

As for the admission fees. I've never been a fan of dual-pricing and I was particularly uncomfortable with the pricing system at Nai Soi. That I, as a foreigner, was required to pay 250 baht to the village did not bother me. My complaint was that the Thais did not have to pay. "But we have given these refugees a home on our soil. Why should we pay?" they will tell you.

“Because these are not your mountains, your waterfalls, or your forests, but are human beings whom you do not own,” is my answer as well as the fact that their existence already generates a lot of cash for the regional tourism industry regardless of who pays what to enter these villages. If there is going to be tourism to these villages the situation of the refugees would probably be greatly enhanced if Thais did have to fork over 250 baht like the rest of us.

Should you visit one of these villages? Ultimately that's your decision. But here's a few main issues to consider which I've tried to place both a positive and negative spin on each.

1.) If you go it could be argued that you are encouraging the indiscriminate mutilation of young woman. Okay, however, this assumes that all the women see these neckrings as mutilation and I'm not convinced they all do.

2.) If you go you are encouraging the women to make tourist attractions of themselves as opposed to seeking better, more sustainable opportunities. Okay, but these are refugees and their choices are significantly limited as to what they can do. They are truly stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. And there is the issue of their rights to self-determination.

3.) If you go you are encouraging the exploitation of a group of people who have refugee status and by UNHCR regulations should not be seen by the public. Tough to play devil's advocate with this one, however, as the one young woman said, she enjoyed the contact with the tourists.

4.) If you go the ultimate profiteer are not the villagers but the Thai government through the overall increase in tourism to the Mae Hong Son region the Padaung bring; just witness the proliferation of postcards and tourist literature extolling the Padaung as if they were Thailand's own. Fair enough again, but is $2 for me and $8 for you better than no dollars for me and $5 for you? There are still many other attractions in Mae Hong Son, so it could be argued that the Padaung have a right to get their hands in the pie as well.

If you decide to go, then I would hope you don’t hire a tour agency which takes the lion’s share of the cash. Go on your own. Pay the admission fee, purchase a souvenir or two whether you like the product or not, stuff some extra money in a donation box, and most importantly, seek out a smiling villager and try striking up a conversation with her. Some of the women do speak passable English and you might feel better about the exploitation issue after you did. Then again you might not.

If you decide not to go, that's fine, too. However, if the situation of the Padaung interests you, I would think it might be beneficial to at least visit the village and talk to the refugees and hear their side of the story and try to glean how much is really truth and how much is doing what they are told.

And this is another roundabout argument. If someone is going to speak out against these villages, then they should have at least visited one to know better what it is they are speaking out against. But that approach essentially says everyone must visit the village, which would defeat the purpose of advocating a boycott of these villages.

There is no easy answer to this issue. My own feeling is yes, they are humans on display selling their tradition to tourism. But regrettably, it’s all they have for now. It can be argued they are "human zoos", however they aren't caged animals, they are people with stories to tell and there's something to be said for listening to one.

And don’t forget. Exploitation reaches well beyond just visiting one of these villages. A magazine paid me to write a version of this editorial from money paid by advertisers some of which you may patronize while you’re in Thailand and this website carries advertising. Even if you choose not to visit one of these villages, refuse to do business with any company that sponsors tours or even advertises in a publication promoting these tribes, one way or another, your money will exploit somebody somewhere. Exploitation is everywhere and we are all part of the cycle.

Link: A story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer dated April 9, 1998.

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.