Some tourists see the charming children with their necks rigidly encased in heavy brass coils and say, “Poor, girls.”
Their mothers view things differently: The coils are passports to a better way of life and some profit for the Padaung tribe.
Once a tradition of this ethnic minority group from neighboring Burma — no one knows why the custom developed — it’s now money that keeps the coils on the so-called long-necked women.
More than a decade after fleeing their homeland, several hundred Padaung live in settlements along northern Thailand’s rugged border with Burma, also called Myanmar. Denied the basic rights of Thai citizens and regarded as illegal immigrants, they are nonetheless allowed to remain because of their value to tourism.
They’ve become the unofficial symbols of Mae Hong Son Province, attracting thousands of foreigners and Thais who come to gawk, photograph and buy their souvenirs.
Encouraged by their mothers, many girls accept money from tourist boat operators to become long-necked women. The companies pay 500 baht, about $13, a month to every girl who dons the coils, which elongate the neck by pressing down on the collar bones and ribs while pushing the chin upward.
In time the muscles weaken so much that the neck would collapse if the coils were removed. Thus girls as young as 2 will wear them for the rest of their lives.
Creating a ‘Human Zoo”
The boat operators control tourist access to Huay Puu Kaeng, a settlement of thatch-roofed, bamboo shacks along the Pai River.
Visitors pay for the boat ride here. There is no admission charge to the village, which critics call a “human zoo,” but some tourists tip the Padaung after taking photographs and also buy trinkets sold by virtually every family.
“It is not comfortable wearing these coils, even while sleeping. But with them on we can live in Thailand because they want us to stay this way,” says Pa Peiy, a 32-year-old mother of two daughters and a son.
Her 6-year-old daughter is already adorned with the coils but there’s no plan yet for the youngest, who is only 2.
Like other long-necked adults, Pa Peiy is paid nearly $40 a month as a “reward” for her exotic look. With her daughter’s fee added in, the family can live in some comfort.
“Our lives are better here. We prefer to live here rather than being sent back to Myanmar,” she says of the impoverished, military-ruled country.
Most girls begin to wear their first coils, weighing as much as 6 ½ pounds, at age 5. More rings are later added.
“We want food, clothes and other necessities. This is the only way we can earn money,” says Mu Song, a 28-year-old mother.
Mu Song’s daughter Emi, 7, has worn coils for two years and the family is trying to save enough money to buy them for 5-year-old Mu Ja.
Meager Options Available
Some girls choose not to follow the tradition.
“I prefer to be normal. No one can force me to wear the coils, but my friends think they are pretty with the rings around their necks and they also get paid,” says 8-year-old Lu Si.
Unlike some of her friends, Lu Si has no financial pressure on her because her mother and an elder sister are the family bread winners as long-necked women.
In a hut that serves as the village school, the children are taught simple mathematics and the Thai language.
“They have difficulties learning how to read and write Thai since their own language has no written form,” says a teacher, Surin Kongsathienraphap. “I do not see what the future holds for them.”
Their numbers at Huay Puu Kaeng have increased from a few dozen to 107, with marriages occurring only within the group.
“The girls will end up doing what their mothers are doing to survive,” the teacher says.