The Padaung Conundrum

A group of Padaung at Inle Lake

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.

A Padaung woman in Myanmar

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.

Meeting a Padaung woman at Inle Lake

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.

2009 video of our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with some footage of the Padaung at 3:19.

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.

7 responses to “The Padaung Conundrum”

  1. avatar Gary Arndt says:

    I visited some long neck women in Thailand and saw basically the same thing. They sat around weaving and selling their goods. That’s it. They sat around all day taking care of their kids while working and made some money doing it. All things being equal, it was probably a good deal for them.

    I have a hard time calling wearing neck rings abuse. Just because it is something westerners don’t want to do doesn’t mean it is abuse. I’ve seen people in western countries with enormous (and I mean enormous) hoops in their ear lobes.I don’t see how it is that much different. Just because they do something that we wouldn’t do doesn’t make it abuse.

    You can’t have respect for other cultures only when it doesn’t effect western sensibilities.

  2. avatar laurelle says:

    Thanks for the insightful research and commentary, Tony.

  3. I did refer to the Paduang necks as “a terrifying form of abuse” because the weight from the rings does significantly alter their bone structure as well as affect their musculature. Paduang women clearly have difficulty moving their upper body.

    Moreover, they also experience many health issues with the skin under the rings including chaffing, reactions to the metal, difficulty cleaning the skin under the rings etc. Further research indicates that some Paduang who remove the rings have irreversible skin issues including permanent discoloration.

    As with lip plates, elongated ears, full body tattooing (all of which are fascinating forms of body art), elongated necks permanently relegate a Paduang women to a “tribal” existence rather than allowing these women to integrate into the main stream. While I and many other travelers would hate to witness the disappearance of yet another tribe, Paduang women are not obligated to sit in their huts and weave for our amusement for generations to come.

    Young Paduang women with access to education who are undergoing the neck elongation process now may be condemning themselves to a long life as a tribal phenomenon trapped in a rapidly modernizing nation. Outside the tourist industry, companies are not likely to hire Paduang women with elongated necks nor are they likely to hire Mursi women with lip plates or Dayak women with elongated earlobes. It’s a sad fact, but true.

    I hate sounding like a corporate executive gone wild, but what will these people do in an ultra-modern world? How will they survive? There is a reason that bound feet went the way of the dodo and it is not just because it didn’t conform to Western expectations.

    Plus I might add as an afterthought that most of these surviving forms of body modification are found on women’s bodies rather than men’s. (Clearly not all, but most.) Tribal men seem very willing to give up many of their own forms of body art while requiring their wives to continue theirs in the name of tradition. I often ask myself if this isn’t more about keeping women in their “traditional place.”

  4. avatar Facebook User says:

    Hello there,

    This is an probably the most extensive article that I’ve seen from a traveler/blogger point of view about this tribe. Very thoroughly written and I applaud you for doing an in-depth article about it.. excellent start.

    I like to add my two Kyats (as is the currency in Burma) to this:

    I’ve chosen NOT to visited the Padaung tribes particularly in Thailand because I am very sure and certain that they are there mostly because they are NOT able to return to their own country for reasons many of us could probably not ever fathom. All immigrants in Thailand, many many are from Burma do not have a country to call of their own, and they never will given the current political climate. Can you, imagine this? They have no nationality. So they live in Thailand at the mercy of the Thai people and the government and this status is easily and readily exploited.

    Inside their own country, they are probably “safe” as long as they are not oppositional. There may be risks, certainly, but they at least have a place they can belong to, a country they can call home.

    As for the rings: decades upon decades of traditions and customs fuel their believes to maintain their lifestyle of keeping the rings, despite long term health/medical problems, of which they are not aware – the cause and effect of the rings. Clearly, with proper health education and awareness of the long term outcomes of the act of wearing these rings the younger generation may have a future and opportunities you’ve described in the post.

    NO they do not see it as abuse, they see it as part of their way of living, their culture, and custom. As a person whose lived in the west for 30 years I would say education is the best route to helping them become more independent, self reliable and to integrate them into main stream.

    On the flip side of that is– along comes with education benefits, over time, there is possibility of this traditional practice disappearing all together. And as a Burmese American, who am I to suggest that even though I also know for these young girls there may be a better future. Frankly, as a Burmese American Social Worker, I would love nothing more than to see young women and girls educated and liberated. So I guess the question is how can NGO’s and informed tourists or anyone in general like us help this particular tribe keep their traditions (for some if they choose), receive proper education not just about health implication due to these rings, but education at large, in general to give them the necessary tools they need to become self relying, productive and confident Padaung people in their own domain being able to make CHOICES for themselves.

  5. avatar Jen says:

    Nice insight to the Kayah Lahwi in Burma. I am a Social and Cultural Anthropology PhD student and I am writing my dissertation on state militarization and gendered violence of the Kayah Lahwi. I have been to the tourist villages in Thailand where women and children are put on display as well as a few refugee camps where they are not. I’ll keep this brief or else I’ll ramble forever, but the issue really isn’t with their brass rings being harmful–its a cultural practice that many choose to continue in order to remember the history and legacy of their tradition and people. The issues lay with human rights abuses….meaning, that while they might be “safer” in Thai tourist villages than in their homelands because of the junta military regime and ethno-genocide going on, they are still put in a situation in these villages where self-preservation, the right to work outside the “village”, access to education and health care, freedom to come and go, etc are all violated. They are generally kept without papers and the Thai government is not allowing them to claim political refugee status so they are not eligible for third country resettlement like other refugees from Burma. The Thai government [read: tourism authority] knows that they are a lucrative business for the government to make money on tourism and therefore they have not allowed them to resettle into 3rd countries by claiming they are “economic refugees” and Thailand is giving them a way to make money so there is no reason to leave. Thats it in a nutshell. I have worked with many refugees from Burma both in Thailand and the United States and will continue to dedicate my life to them. The Kayah Lahwi have the unfortunate situation of lack of access to anything except to be gawked at by tourists and to sell their handicrafts. Many children have expressed their desire to attend school and become doctors and teachers–though unless something changes with resettlement allowances and UNHCR papers, this is unlikely to ever happen. They are being denied their right to self-preservation, among other things.

  6. avatar Paulo says:

    Is this not the “conundrum” of almost anyone? Is selling yourself to a law firm as an entry-level clerk, or a cashier at McDonalds anymore natural than what the Padaung do for income? In which position is one more likely to be exploited or a victim of a “terrifying form of abuse?”

    • avatar Tony says:

      Good point Paulo. Many could argue that various forms of work are a form of exploitation or can cause harm to our health. And there are many parallels between what the Paduang do and what professional models do.

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