My first visit to the Long Neck refugee village near Mae Hong Son, Thailand was in November, 1991 on one of those typical backpacker tours out of Chiang Mai that included 4 days of trekking, caving, and a visit to the Long Neck refugee village.
At that time, the village was very new and there were no booths selling stuff, just a small group of women “residents” who were paid to dance with the tourists and made money selling sarongs and other small handmade trinkets. I joined in the dance and was fascinated by their appearance and their beliefs, totally oblivious to the political reasons for their relocation or the situation in Myanmar.
The Padaung women are part of the Kayan tribe of Myanmar, who fled their country due to political conflicts and settled in Northern Thailand. In the late 1980’s, Mae Hong Son was one of the poorest provinces in Thailand and the Thai government decided to use these Kayan people to increase tourism so they created refugee camps along the border. Tourists were drawn to these exotic looking women with the long necks and interesting beliefs.
Last year I returned to the same village, this time in a group of two, just me and my friend Deborah on our scooter trip along the Mae Hong Son loop. This refugee camp had grown into a small market village catering to tourists who were curious about these exotic looking women.
We stopped at one booth and the woman spoke to us in nearly perfect English, so we stayed a while and talked with her. She spoke 5 languages, learned from the tourists who shopped at her booth, in an effort to increase her sales by bonding with people. After talking with her for quite a while we felt obligated to buy something, so I guess her “English ploy” worked.
When I started writing this blog I decided some of my stories would be profiles of interesting people I’ve met in my travels (“People”) and this Long Neck woman was on the top of my list. She was a fascinating person with an interesting story and a life so unimaginably different from mine.
We returned to her village last month on our second Mae Hong Son loop tour, and my hope was to spend time interviewing her, maybe even get a video clip of our interview for my blog. I had so many questions to ask about her past, her life in the village, and her hopes for the future. Unfortunately, she seemed a little more cautious this time, reserved and a little distant. After a little small talk I gently suggested writing her story. I felt her walls and sensed her reluctance, not sure if it was a language barrier or if she had no idea what a “blog” was, so I didn’t push it. I realize now that she’s somewhat forbidden to reveal too much to foreigners.
Instead of focusing on her, I started looking at all of the women in her community, and it was just sad. One woman sat on a bench playing traditional music on her guitar. I caught her face on film in an unguarded moment and saw the sad, empty look in her eyes.
Another woman sat at her loom, and as I approached and asked if I could take her photo, she assumed the “pose” that she knew the tourists wanted. It was so rehearsed and I felt like she was a trained animal, behaving as she was told. I smiled at her and there was a moment when I think we both understood that this was a game and she was forced to play along.
After this third visit to the Long Neck Village I had a lot of questions and I was hoping to get some answers from International Rescue Committee, an international organization with an office in Mae Hong Son. I stopped by their office and explained my story to the woman in Human Resources, who assured me she would pass my contact information to the woman in charge of the Padaung refugee situation. A month later and I’ve still had no contact from her despite follow up emails.
In my google research, I ran across an interesting article by Cultural Survival.org that explained the history of the women and how they were used as a pawn between Thai Tourism and the Burmese government, both sides realizing their value in bringing in the tourist dollars. I emailed them with my questions and have received no reply.
I also found a blog post, “Long Neck Women – Captives of Tourism” that answered some of my questions, but not all. Do I recommend visiting this village if you’re ever in the Mae Hong Son area? Still unsure so I resorted to Google to gain more perspective.
Where does the money from tourism go? How much do the women get?
According to my google sources, women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month (about $42USD) to run souvenir stalls and men receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month ($7 USD). The women make a little more from the traditional scarves they weave and sell. The entrance fee all tourists pay to visit the village is 250 baht, so I’m still wondering where all of that money goes.
Are the women restricted from too much contact with foreigners?
In one village, Hway Su Thao, the women have had their wages docked for riding motorbikes, talking to foreigners outside the village or attending educational courses that keep them away from the village during the day. This is probably why our English-speaking friend was more reluctant to speak to us the second time we visited.
Do the women have any other employment options or are they actually “captive”?
According to some Google sources, they are not allowed to leave the camp and are basically hostages. However, the woman we befriended told us that some are given travel permits allowing them short trips to Chiang Mai. When they travel, they remove the rings and try to blend in. They may be able to find illegal employment in Chiang Mai, but legally they have no options outside the camp.
My biggest concern is this: If the tourism dollars stop, what will happen to the women? A few years ago, the company I worked for went out of business. Fortunately, I had options and the freedom to either find another job or leave the country. I chose to use this unfortunate twist of fate to leave the country and explore the world, but I still have the freedom to go back.
So, should you visit or not? If you choose to go, here are a few suggestions:
- Visit with great respect for their situation and see them as women, not as some sort of freak show or human zoo.
- Have a conversation with them (some speak a little English), make eye contact, smile, connect with them.
- Make sure you buy something to support them financially.
- Consider volunteering in the village through organizations like Border Green Energy Team.
Until they have other legal options, I would hate to see tourists staying away, taking away their ability to make a living and have a tiny bit of self-respect.
Do you agree?