The Padaung Conundrum
The Padaung, sometimes annoyingly referred to as the “long-neck” tribe, are one of the most recognizable ethnic groups in the world. More properly called the Kayah Lahwi (their name for themselves), the Padaung embrace one of the most extreme beautification practices out there. As Padaung women grow, heavy brass coils are added to their necks pushing down their shoulders to create the illusion of a long neck. From Discovery Channel specials on “body modification” to literature on “body mutilation” the Padaung story has been told and sold and used and abused for a variety of purposes.
This tribe attracts a lot of attention, but due to decades of rebel activity in their home state of Kayah, very few outsiders have been able to visit Padaung villages in Myanmar. This might have been a sort of blessing in disguise.
In the early 90s, Padaung refugees fleeing conflict began crossing into neighboring Thailand. I remember hearing stories of travelers encountering the legendary “giraffe woman” when I first visited Thailand in 1990 and 91. At the time, the drug-laden Golden Triangle was still relatively volatile. (I remember floating through a shootout between Karen rebels and the Thai military on a bamboo raft – yikes!) Moreover, those visitors who did travel to the border with Myanmar did not usually visit refugee camps, so exchanges between Padaung and outsiders were relatively uncommon.
Many reports of exploitation
But conflict in the Thai portion of the Golden Triangle was coming to an end, and with a calming of the region, these initial encounters with the Padaung quickly evolved into a circus-like tourist show. Early experiments with “freakonomics” steadily evolved into a full-blown Padaung industry. Reports began to circulate that Padaung women were being held as virtual slaves so that tourists visiting the human zoo could photograph them for a fee. As they were often illegal immigrants in Thailand, the Padaung were easily exploited.
Wanting to get in on the Padaung show, business people in the Inle Lake region of Myanmar, an open region without travel restrictions, began to bring in Padaung women to draw tourists into their shops. The Padaung, desperate to survive, were easily lured into such schemes.
This disgusting behavior in Thailand and to a lesser extent in Myanmar drew widespread criticism from human rights organizations as well as tribal advocacy groups. Still today, Lonely Planet guidebooks for both Thailand and Myanmar implore visitors not to partake in the Padaung show, and if they visit, not to pay for photos.
Exploitation, a story of survival, or both
Bypassing this exploitative experience sounds like a pretty obvious choice. This is why I have not seen the Padaung before. But very recently, I saw an interesting documentary discussing the further evolution of the Padaung story. The documentary described how human rights organizations and NGOs had been able to shape and form the freak show into something a little more palatable. It described how the Padaung were directly benefiting from tourist visits and associated handicraft sales.
The documentary argued that the neck rings were a form of body art no worse that extreme tattooing or breast implants. Moreover, the documentary showed a professional male photo model in America who had enhanced his career opportunities by getting pec implants. The documentary posed an interesting question: when professional photo models are turning to body modification to enhance their career opportunities, how can we condemn the Padaung, a displaced tribal group, for charging tourists for photos?
The more I thought about the documentary, the more I wanted to meet a Padaung woman.
Fast forward to Inle Lake, Myanmar. When our long-tail boat driver asked our motley crew if we wanted to see a Padaung woman, everyone in the boat answered with a resounding no – except me. “I want to meet a Padaung woman,” I announced, “so I can ask her directly how she is being treated.”
Somewhat perplexed by my response and unsure of whether to challenge Lonely Planet’s recommendations, the others reluctantly agreed to the visit. I’m glad we did, it was not at all what I expected.
Meeting the Padaung for the first time
We stepped out of the long-tail into a stilt-hut tourist shop, which was actually quite nice. The owners greeted us with cups of tea and showed us their extensive collection of carved statues, puppets, antiques, jewelry, and woven scarves. Off to the side, I noticed a young Padaung woman walking by with a basket of yarn. I somewhat awkwardly followed her into a separate hut where she and several other Padaung women were weaving scarves. Busily working the looms, they were joking and laughing with each other, at times screaming and belly laughing in delight. They didn’t look like slaves.
The young Padaung woman I had followed in smiled and welcomed me, another giggled and ran off into another room. The owners of the shop entered and asked me if I was interested in Padaung woven scarves, the emphasis was not at all on the women’s necks. An older Padaung women eyed my camera bag and said something biting that sent the other women into hysterics. Rather than rushing to take a photo, I sat and watched the older woman weaving. I have to admit, their necks were incredibly impressive.
Noticing my curiosity, one of the women asked if I wanted to take a picture. Unsure, I hesitated. “Free,” she smiled. I was confused. Weren’t they selling pictures of themselves? I snapped a couple of portraits and some shots of the women weaving and then showed them the pictures on my camera’s digital display.
“Thank you,” said the younger Padaung woman before returning to work. No requests for money, no demand to purchase anything. I sat for some time watching them weave.
Some argue that the Padaung’s long necks give them an economic advantage over other Burmese tribal people. Most of Myanmar’s tribes lack education and training and have little prospect for work other than traditional agriculture. For many tribes who have been displaced by conflict and have lost their land, daily survival is a constant struggle. The Padaung’s unique tradition has given an impoverished people a means of bringing in income. Clearly, the women working in the tourist shop had been hired to lure in curious travelers. Many tribal women can weave, but the Padaung women got the jobs, and they got the jobs because of their neck rings.
Others argue that tourists are actively encouraging the Padaung to continue a horrible form of “body mutilation” which needs to be stopped. It is often rumored that if Padaung women remove their rings, their atrophied necks flop over causing them to suffocate. This rumor appears to be false; however, I was unable to find any online pictures of older Padaung women without their rings. Regardless, weighting the shoulders and severely altering a girl’s bone development is unquestionably an extreme beauty ideal which does affect how a woman is able to move her entire upper body.
What do the Padaung think?
I have no idea. Although they clearly interact with tourists on a daily basis, the four women we met only spoke enough English to greet us and introduce themselves. Over the years, Thomas and I have encountered numerous tribal groups in various stages of development. Looks and behavior tell us a lot. The women were clean and seemed healthy. They were laughing and joking with us and with each other. They seemed happy. The way the women interacted with us expressed amusement and equality rather than fear or submissiveness. I saw no obvious signs that the store owners were using or abusing these women. Both the woman and the store owners were proud of their products and not at all desperate to sell them. Here in Inle Lake, the women appeared to be living better than most tribal people trapped in a 21st century world.
So, what’s the answer?
The answer is that the world is complex. Padaung necks are fascinating and, in an anthropological sense, beautiful – but they also represent a terrifying form of abuse. This abuse is, however, allowing Padaung to survive in less than ideal circumstances. There are advocates who insist that the practice of placing neck rings on young girls must stop immediately. This makes sense for Padaung who have access to education and career training. But for the Padaung living in remote regions, removing the rings may be throwing away their best source of income. There are few easy answers. The Padaung conundrum is just one more example of the complex realities facing tribal people as they transition into a very foreign modern world.
NOTE: Second-hand reports and online sources indicate that the situation was worse in Thailand where Padaung tourism had gotten out of hand. We have not been to these villages, so we did not comment on them. If you have recently visited the Padaung in either Thailand or Myanmar, we would love to hear about your experience in the comment section.