Adorning their necks with brass coils, the women of the Padaung tribe have proved a major tourist attraction since they began fleeing Myanmar, also known as Burma, more than a decade ago. Custom prescribes that girls before puberty begin to wear coils that are augmented until they weigh as much as 11 pounds. The coils force the chin upward while pressing down the collarbones and ribs, elongating the neck.
photos / Marino Brzac / Zoran Marinović
Various origins of the custom are cited, ranging from protection against tiger attacks to symbols of wealth and status. One myth tells of a beautiful dragon with a long neck that was impregnated by the wind to produce the first Padaung people.Most of the Padaung are in three border camps in the northwestern province of Mae Hong Son. An estimated 10,000 Thais and foreigners visit those camps each year, paying an entrance fee that allows them to photograph and mingle with the smiling, colorfully attired long-necked women and girls.
Economically it’s a virtually perfect arrangement. Everyone gets a cut–the once impoverished Padaung, Thai businessmen and government tax collectors, even a rebel group that uses the money to finance its war with the military regime in Myanmar. While some critics have long decried the “human zoo” aspect, long-necked tourism took a darker turn last year when news reports said a Thai businessman had lured a Padaung group out of Myanmar’s Kayah state with promises of setting them up with their kin in Mae Hong Son.
It was alleged that the businessman, Dhana Nakluang, deceived the Padaung by bringing them instead to Tha Ton in Chiang Mai province, hiring guards to prevent escape and mistreating those who protested. With Dhana facing charges, police raided the camp in February and took the women to a social welfare center.
Dhana denied he had forced them to stay at his Thanabamrungkit Farm.
“I assure you that they have a happy life here. They look healthier than when they first arrived, especially the children,” he said before the raid.
“Mae Hong Son provincial authorities are upset that I have some Padaung here in Chiang Mai. They made up the story to condemn me as they want to be the only province where Padaung exist,” he charged.
Indeed, the long-necked women have become Mae Hong Son province’s unofficial symbol, a come-on for tourists to a region where many other tribal groups now wear jeans and ride motorcycles.