ဗမာျပည္၏ၾကာရွည္လွေသာျပည္တြင္းစစ္အာနိ႒ာရုံေၾကာင့္ လူသားတိရိစၦာန္ရုံ၌ေရာက္ေနရတဲ့တုိင္းရင္းသားတစ္မ်ဳိး သုိ.မဟုတ္ ေမႊးရနံ.ဝွက္ေသာပန္းကေလးမ်ား၊
“PLEASE DO NOT SUPPORT THIS VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS!” the company writes me in an e-mail.
Visiting long-necked Padaung: Tradition or exploitation?
CHIANG MAI, Thailand – You can see almost anything in the world if you pay enough. So I am startled when a well-respected trekking company in northern Thailand refuses my request to travel to a nearby village of a tribe called the Padaung.
“PLEASE DO NOT SUPPORT THIS VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS!” the company writes me in an e-mail.
Nothing is simple when it comes to the Padaung.
The Padaung, commonly known as the long-necked women, are refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) who are famous for their giraffelike appearance, which is produced by brass rings coiled around their necks. Although it looks as though the coils thrust their heads upward, the elongation is actually caused by the weight of the rings crushing their collarbones down.
Ever since I glimpsed photographs of the Padaung as a child in my grandfather’s National Geographics, I’ve wanted to see these curious women, who suffer painful disfigurement to emerge as graceful beauties.
But I did not know about the raging debate over the ethics of visiting this tribe.
Some trekking companies and human rights groups consider the Padaung villages, which stretch across northern Thailand, to be “human zoos” that exploit the women. There have even been reports that some of the Padaung are prisoners held captive by businessmen.
“Disgraceful stuff!” Annette Kunigagon, the owner of Eagle House Eco-sensitive Tours, writes me in an e-mail. “We have been running culturally and environmentally friendly treks for 22 years and have never run treks to visit this tribal group as we would consider this exploitation as they have no rights.”
Were tourists really being taken to see virtual prisoners? And if so, would my visit encourage slavery by paying money to human traffickers? Or would I be able to sound the alarm if I saw real human rights violations? I ultimately conclude that if the villages really are so deplorable, my ability to write about them might ultimately help the Padaung more than harm them. I decide to go.
Almost any traveler who ventures into nature or the developing world has to grapple with such moral dilemmas.
Some people think it is cruel to swim with dolphins, because the animals are kept in captivity. Others refuse to visit authoritarian countries such as Zimbabwe, fearful that their tourist dollars will help prop up repressive regimes.
And almost anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of an indigenous culture – in the rain forests of Ecuador or the yurts of Mongolia – has to be aware that the very presence of a foreigner likely alters typical native behavior.
But my entire trek through northern Thailand presents ethically ambiguous views of traditional culture and, in some cases, traditions continued perhaps solely for the sake of tourist dollars.
I am in the middle of a month-long tour of Southeast Asia, and I eventually find a company in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, that will take me on a two-day trek to see the Padaung and four other hill tribes.
So that’s how I find myself on a 90-degree July day on the outskirts of a jungle in Chiang Dao, about 30 miles south of the Myanmar-Thailand border. There are lush vegetation and fields of corn as far as the eye can see. After plowing through dense brush, we arrive at our first village: the home of the Karen tribe, also from Myanmar.
What exotic sights do we see? Several women in T-shirts and shorts cutting thin strips of wood to make baskets. “They don’t like to wear their costumes,” says my guide, Jakrapan Saengpayom.
We next head to a village of the Lisu, a tribe originally from Tibet that wears heavy, multicolored fabrics, and then the Akha, a tribe whose origins are traced to Mongolia; members are famed for their headwear of silver jewelry. Several villagers wear traditional costumes, but most do not.
It is only when we arrive late that afternoon at a Palaung village that we see women wearing traditional garb, including dozens of rattan rings that circle their waists. (Elaborate getups or anatomical distortions seem to be required for women; the men wear essentially Thai clothes.)
Nae Naheng, 52, the matriarch of the family in whose house I spend the night, says the Palaung believe that women were angels in the past world and that male hunters used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are never supposed to remove the rings. Naheng says she only briefly takes off the rings in the shower.
“Once I took them off when I was young, and I felt sick and very sad,” she says. “If you do not wear the rings, your soul will get ill, and you can die.”
But one member of the 300-person village does not feel that way. Joy Thaijun, 28, is wearing shorts and a T-shirt. This annoys my guide, who says that if the villagers stop wearing traditional costumes, tourists will stop coming to visit them.
“She is a lazy Palaung,” he says jokingly to her.
Embarrassed, Thaijun puts on her costume, then tries to sell me some trinkets and handicrafts. After politely refusing, I ask her why she did not wear the costume.
“I am part of a new generation, and I do not like it,” she says. “It is hot and uncomfortable.” But she might have to, she adds, because the chief of the village is considering forcing everyone to wear the costume.
“If the chief orders us, we will do it,” she says,
The chief, a 52-year-old named Nanta Asung, says the women must wear the dress because of tradition. But he also speaks excitedly about its appeal to tourists, who account for half of the village’s $30,000 annual income. That night, an Australian family is paying $15 to sleep in his hut.
After a dinner of chicken curry, raw pork, and a jungle delicacy identified as minced mole, I ask our hostess whether she feels forced to wear the costume because of visiting foreigners.
“I don’t care about tourists,” Naheng says. “This is our culture. Even if no tourists came, I would still wear it.”
The next morning, I scramble up on an elephant for an hour-long ride that leaves me sore all over, then take an hour-long trip down the Ping River on a bamboo raft held together by strips of rubber tire.
Eventually, we arrive at the village of the long-necked women. It is off a dirt road, and a man charges us about $9 each to enter.
It doesn’t look like a village at all. We are ushered into a 50-square-yard collection of shacks, where two dozen Padaung women sit and sew or try to sell their wares. There are no men in sight and only a handful of tourists during my two-hour visit.
The women are as breathtaking as I imagined. Their heads seem to float ethereally over their bodies. In person, they look less like giraffes than swans, regal and elegant.
But, of course, this was done by crushing and deforming their bodies. Did the Padaung women want to wear those enormous coils?
“We’re not allowed to take it off because of our tradition,” says Malao, a 33-year-old who, like most Padaung women, has only one name. She takes off the rings once a year to clean the brass and her neck, but that’s it.
“If I take it off for a long time, it is uncomfortable,” she says. “My head aches, and I feel like my neck can’t support my head.”
Young girls typically start wearing about 3 1/2 pounds of brass coil around their necks and keep adding weight until they have more than 11 pounds. They also wear coils on their legs.
The women say the rings are painful when they are young but don’t hurt now, and that there are no health problems associated with wearing them. None of them know of any story or reason for wearing the rings – it is just a tradition. (Other sources cite a Padaung legend that the rings protect children from being killed by tigers, which tend to attack at the neck.)
“Why do we wear the rings?” asks Mamombee, 52, whose neck seems particularly elongated. “We do it to put on a show for the foreigners and tourists.”
I can’t tell whether she is joking.
But Mamombee says she doesn’t like to remove them except once every three years to clean herself. “I feel bad when I take out the rings,” she says. “I look and feel ugly.”
There are no guards around, and it does not look as though anyone would physically stop the women from leaving. They say a man named U Dee, whom they refer to as “the middleman,” began bringing Padaung to this spot about three years ago. There are now about 50 families here, including some from a tribe known as “the long ears” because they stretch their lower earlobes by wearing enormous rings.
Some families say they are paid about $45 a month; others have gotten a sack of rice. One orphan girl says she has not been paid at all. All the women and girls try to raise extra money by selling trinkets or charging money to be photographed.
The women are not allowed to leave the one-acre village. Groceries and other supplies are brought in daily by motorcycle.
“We have to stay with the middleman,” Mamombee says. “If I leave, he might call immigration.”
Does she want to escape?
“I have no choice. If we leave, we will be arrested,” she says. Their only option is to stay or pay U Dee money to be returned to Myanmar. But after pausing, she adds: “I would much rather be here than in Burma.”
Myanmar is an authoritarian state led by a military junta and is among the poorest countries in the world. U Dee could not be reached for comment. But Helen “Lee” Jayu, a Lisu shopkeeper from the same tribe as U Dee, says that all the Padaung are in Thailand under U Dee’s patronage and that there are no problems as long as no one leaves the area.
Is it unethical to visit the long-necked women? It is true that money spent to visit them supports an artificial village, which they essentially cannot leave. On the other hand, many of them seem to prefer living in virtual confinement to living in a repressive country plagued by poverty and hunger.
I don’t feel guilty about visiting the Padaung, but I might feel differently if I were traveling as a tourist rather than as a journalist. And I certainly don’t like their lot in life: Shouldn’t everyone have the freedom to live and travel wherever they want?
My final stop was an orchid and butterfly farm outside Chiang Dao. The delicate, multicolored creatures would occasionally launch into the air, flying up, up, up – until they hit the mesh cages of the farm. Then the butterflies would flutter down to one of the artificial stands and spread their wings.
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