|These girls have worn neck rings for just a few years. More will be added as they get older.|
My daughter lives such a different life than them.
I remember sitting in my suburban Texas home when I was a little girl and reading about the Long Neck Tribes in the remote jungles of Asia. Looking at the explorer journal sketches of women with rings going up their impossibly tall, giraffe-like necks, these people seemed no more real than the inhabitants of Tatooine, Narnia or Middle Earth -- maybe even less so. They were so far removed from my life in the land of cowboys and astronauts. I certainly never thought that I'd one day encounter them face to face.
Baan Tong Luang is an eco-agricultural hill tribes village just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was created in 2005 as a cultural preservation project, tourist attraction, and a way to create income for the hill tribes, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar. Seven distinct tribes are located here including the Padaung people, also called the Kayan Lahwi, a subgroup of the Karen tribe and famous for their women with long, ringed necks.
|Uncurling the rings of the Padaung women|
At first, I was hesitant to visit. What if I was contributing to the perpetuation of an outdated custom maintained merely to separate tourists from their money? I wondered if it would feel like a Human Zoo. But then I decided that I never question visits to Australian Aboriginal Cultural Centers, Colonial Williamsburg or other living history museums. Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that these tribes kept their traditions alive out of pride and wanted to share them with the world.
|Brass rings encircle her neck, wrists, and legs|
Does she long to remove them or is it an integral part of her cultural identity?
Does she wish people would see past the rings to the individual inside them?
I'm so glad that I went. I got to talking with one of the Padaung women, thrilled by how well she spoke English as my Tibeto-Burman language comprehension is quite poor. After chatting with her, I no longer felt like a mere voyeur but instead like someone who heard her story and carried it out to the world. We asked her what it felt like to wear those rings. "Heavy and hot," was her answer. "But it is better here," she said. "When I worked in the fields in Burma, they were so hot. It was hard to work. Here, I can weave and sit in the shade." She unfurled some of her handiwork. Each one takes 3 days to weave and are priced at only US$5. After listening to her story, I didn't have the heart to haggle. Like most girls, she started wearing the rings when she was about 4 or 5 years old, beginning with just a few. Now, she has 25 rings. (The rings do not actually stretch their necks but squash their vertebrae and collarbone so it angles downwards, giving the illusion of a longer neck.) In this woman's case, she did not start wearing rings just to draw tourist dollars. Perhaps this village did indeed provide her with a better, easier life after fleeing the turmoil in her homelands seven years ago. She also mentioned that she cannot leave Thailand because she has no passport.
|Weaving is better than fieldwork.|
Her white shirt signifies that she's unmarried.
One of the tables held postcards of a young Padaung lady dressed in modern clothes. With her hair flowing loosely down her back and a contemporary jacket, the neck rings took on the look of a bold, statement necklace. It's a look that the fashion world would approve of.
|This perfume ad with Charlize Theron in the in-flight magazine|
definitely reminded me of the Padaung women.
This village is not just some place for their day job catering to tourists. They live here, too. Rice paddies line the walk in the middle of the village while water buffalo graze off to the side.
|Top: Livestock of water buffaloes and roosters|
Middle: Rice paddies
Bottom: Houses on stilts and their makeshift sink comprised of a hose and bucket
A small one-room schoolhouse provides the children with a few hours of education each day, more on weekends. I noticed that working age men and older children were missing. Perhaps they go out and earn other income during the day.
|A Community Education Development teacher from outside the tribe comes by to teach them Thai, English and Burmese.|
Surprisingly, the village path ends in a Catholic church at the top of the hill. While the hill tribes were originally animists, many are converting to Christianity after meeting missionaries.
|St. Nicholas Church at the end of the village|
Other northern Thai hill tribes live in this village as well. For the most part, it's a big market selling goods that the villagers make along with outside handiwork. No guided tour, lectures, or performances are part of the experience. Since admission is 500 Thai baht, they don't do high pressure selling or charge you for photos. Haggling is acceptable, although my husband teased me about how horrendous I am at it.
Another branch of the Karen tribe who do not adorn their necks with rings are at the front of the village. Originally from Tibet, they moved into China and then Myanmar (Burma). In the last few decades, political turmoil caused them to take refuge in northern Thailand.
|Karen woman weaving on her backstrap loom.|
Married women wear bold colored shirts.
The Kayaw are another subgroup of the Karen tribe. Like the long necked Padaung subgroup, their legs are also encircled with brass. However, their necks are adorned with loose necklaces instead of confining rings.
|Kayaw girl reads while mom weaves.|
|Kayaw section of the eco-agricultural village|
The Lahu Shi Bala is another tribe that originated in Tibet and moved down to China, then Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Their women insert big metal earrings into their earlobes. My kids really enjoyed trying out the handmade cross-bows with the elder males of this tribe.
|Lahu Shi Bala grandmother tending to the baby in the hammock.|
|Lahu Shi Bala man demonstrates an instrument made out of a gourd with bamboo pipes emerging from it.|
The Palong tribe is a minority tribe that immigrated from Myanmar to Thailand in the mid-1980's. When I first approached the children, they were happily playing. As soon as one girl saw my camera, she called the others to sit down and pose.
|Palong woman selling hats and elephant bullhooks|
The Mien or Yao people are from central China but have been in Thailand for about 150 years. "Yao" means "not under the power of anyone." This was the only tribe I saw doing needlework and batik.
|Top: Mein woman doing needlework; Hot coals keep the batik wax liquid|
Bottom: Batik tool for applying wax to cloth. Those evenly spaced lines are drawn by freehand.
IF YOU GO:
- Baan Tong Luang Eco-Agricultural Village is located off Maerim-Samuang Road, about 35 minutes from the old walled section of Chiang Mai.
- In some ways, this place is merely a large marketplace. Turn it into a deeper experience by taking time to talk with the villagers. They want to share their stories. Feel free to take photographs.
- Allow 1-1.5 hours for your visit, depending on how much time you spend talking.
- Bring drinking water.
- Admission is 500 baht for adults and 300 baht for children
- Pair this visit with excursions to other area attractions: Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Mae Sa Waterfall (a favorite among locals for picnicking and cooling off), or one of the many nearby animal encounters (Mae Sa Elephant Camp, Tiger Kingdom, Monkey School, or Siam Insect Zoo).
Dirty, Hungry Elephants
Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market
Chiang Mai Sunday Market
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Pret-a-Vivre, and Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom? Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.