Known to many as “the long necks” these women are actually a sub group of the Karen tribe called Padang. The Karen are not Thai, they are refugees from Myanmar therefor they are not recognized by the local government as citizens. As refugees they are restricted to any work outside of the tribe and deprived of being able to send their children to school. Out of necessity, they have resorted to set tourist spots in front of their huts where they can sell their handicrafts to make some income.
As far as the “authenticity” of this tribe, I can tell you they don’t fake those brass coils around their neck, they’re pretty authentic and heavy too. A coil of 15 rings weighs as much as 17 pounds. They wear their coils all day every day (it doesn’t come off even to sleep) Despite the appearance of a longer neck, I came to learn that the neck is not stretched by the coil – the coil actually pushes down on the muscles around the collarbone giving the illusion of a longer neck. I also learned that all women individually chose whether to wear the coils or not. For the older generations of Padang women, the primary reasons for wearing them are to help preserve their culture while they are in exile and to help generate income.
For the younger generations, the primary reasons are beauty and to please their mothers. I am glad I went to visit the hill tribes, it open my eyes to the reality of their lives and the daily struggles that they face. It also opened my eyes at how the younger generation of girls (they all spoke a little English) all said they want to go to school, hold real jobs and live in the city.
After my visit, it seems to me it would truly be inauthentic, if not oppressive, if we expected them (specially the younger generations) to live as they did 100 years ago simply for our pleasure of seeing something ‘really different’. I guess it is a little selfish, driving up in a car, walking in with a camera and a phone and expecting them to not want the same.
I love how smiles break barriers and how communication is possible even when we don’t speak the same language. I will forever treasure the laughter shared today