Young hill-tribe women cut a baby’s hair.
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Julia dimon for metro toronto
Julia dimon for metro toronto
The women of the Padung Long Neck tribe are best recognized by the traditional brass coils cuffing their necks, wrists, ankles and shins. Originally refugees from Myanmar (Burma), a small population of Long Necks have settled in Northern Thailand and many have opened up their homes to foreigners.
While backpacking through Pai, I decided to join a tour group and visit the Long Neck village for myself.
It was a bumpy two-hour drive from Pai to a town called Mae Hong Son. I crawled out from the back of the minibus and wandered towards the village — a collection of earthy souvenir stalls and barren bamboo stilt huts.
A young hill tribe woman with thick brass neck rings and a magenta head wrap sat elegantly behind a kiosk. Her traditional dress was so unusual, I asked if I could snap a few photos. With a hint of boredom, the woman showed off her giraffe-like neck and struck a pose. Clearly, she was accustomed to tourists.
I learned that the coiled neck brace (which can weigh up to 20 kilograms), doesn’t actually elongate the neck. It presses down on the woman’s collarbone and rib cage, causing the neck to take on that Loch Ness monster look. The origin of this tradition remains uncertain. One theory suggests that the rings were a symbol of status and beauty, used by women to attract a husband.
Whatever the origin, the brass coils sure looked uncomfortable. I scanned the young woman’s selection of jewelry, handicrafts, colourful hand-woven scarves and postcards. She smiled and encouraged me to buy. Once a nomadic, opium-growing tribe, the Long Necks are now sedentary and rely on tourist dollars to help support their community.
As I made my way along the runway of souvenir stalls, clucking chickens and dusty, half-naked children scampered past me. I stopped to purchase a brass bracelet from a wrinkled woman, who I recognized from the jaundiced newspaper clipping hanging on the wall of a kiosk. She took my 100 baht ($3.50 CDN) and stuffed the cash in her eight inch coiled neck brace. With the newly purchased trinket clasped around my wrist, I could finally appreciate how heavy and awkward their neck rings must be.
The cynic in me wondered if, after tourists leave, the villagers slip on their Nike runners, throw on some Levis and chug back a Coca-Cola. But as I watched two six-year-old boys catch cicadas with bamboo twigs, I felt satisfied that the Padung Long Neck culture is not just a gimmick. They are simply poor villagers trying to benefit from their already commodified culture.
With our tour group piled into the mini-van, we slowly set out along the bumpy dirt road back towards Pai. Our hill tribe village visit had sparked a debate between a few of the backpackers. Terms like female oppression, exploitation and human zoo were being tossed around the bus.
We discussed whether the neck rings represented beauty or enslavement, and whether tourist dollars hinder or help to preserve traditions.
The group did conclude that, though the Long Necks weren’t the remote, unspoiled tribe we’d anticipated, a visit to their village was well worth the time and effort.
Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.