Hill Tribes of Chiang Mai

When Luc and I first talked about visiting the Hill Tribes of northern Chang Mai, I had a vague idea of seeing aboriginal people decked out in traditional dress. I half expected real life version of displays in ethnological museums. In my normal fashion of last minute packing, ticket, keys and bag checking, I did not research the trip. Even as we drove out of Chang Mai and the city congestion gave way to verdant hill sides and crisp mountain air, I thought only about the scenic vistas, the roadside fruit stalls and the grinding gears of the SUV climbing up the steep and narrow roadways.

After two hours we arrived a Baan Tong Luang, a cultural preservation village for the six hill tribes of Northern Thailand – the Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, Palong and Kayaw. The settlement was an almost real village of traditional homes and farming community. Real, because these were actual family homes with actual working farms. Almost real, because it was a planned community set up specifically for tourism. The people lived in the villages, farmed the rice fields and earned a stipend from the entry fees and souvenir sales. In exchange, tourists were welcome to peer into their daily lives.

A single page brochure was handed out with the admission ticket. On it were brief descriptions of the hill tribe’s origin and traditional dress.

“Karen people originally came from Tibet before moving into China and entered to Burma around Salween River. Later, they had conflict against the administrations of Burma, then a lot of them moved into Thailand. Their dressing style appeared distinctly as an indentity of them is the clothes of Karen women. They are in the clothes weaved by themselves with the red-white stripe across the body and wrap a piece of several color cloth around their head. The Karen virgin is in white clothes. Mostly Karen people wear necklace made from natural materials such as bean, Job’s tears, etc.”

Excerpt from Baan Tong Luang brochure

The hill tribe villages have come under attack from various eco-tourist groups. Describing them as  ‘human zoos’, they point out the under-privileged status of the immigrant tribes and lack of access to education and medical benefits. Particular to the Karen Long Necks, or Padaung, vehement criticism is levied against body-mutilation in the name of tourism.

During my Baan Tong Luang visit, I knew nothing of this. I enjoyed the tidy layout of the bamboo and thatch style houses, the quiet demonstration of textile making, the understated display of crafts for sale.

Hmong Batik Collage
Hmong woman making Batik

In many ways, my walk through the compound felt like similar walks through private homesteads in Cambodia and Vietnam. The difference was that people here wore traditional dress and were comfortable in posing for pictures. The homes were authentic and lived in. The indoor kitchen was shady with dappled sunlight streaming in through the slatted walls, the single open room tidy with sparse rugs and containers shuffled into a corner. A group of boys clustered around an outdoor pipe and basin, arguing excitedly about their fishing catch from the rice fields. A dog barked. A waft of country air carried a hint of buffalo, hot packed earth and green fields. What was missing was the rubbish of discarded plastic bags and the re-used or discarded detritus of people living in extreme poverty.

I admit to pausing though, when I saw the long necked women in the Padaung village.

Two little girls were sitting on the porch talking to a visitor. Decked out in carefully applied make-up, shiny bronze necklaces and leg bracelets, they were in animated conversation. With guileless coy they giggled and dangled their legs over the raised platform. As I looked at their feet I was reminded of my daughter’s toes stretching and curling as she swung from a playground swing. When she was their age, she’d had the same careless wit & joy of childhood. But she’d also had the unlimited potential of choice for growing up. What choice did these girls have?

long-necks-7074A few houses down there were older Long Neck women. The brace coils wound longer and heavier around their necks and legs. Their posture was stiffer and less mobile. A girl, no more than five years older than the two little girls, wore a neck brace twice as long. Seen in silhouette her head was distended, awkwardly stretched away from her disproportionately small shoulders. She walked with an unnatural gait that made me feel guilty about taking her picture.

Despite their name, the Padaung women do not have longer necks. Rather, the bronze necklaces push down on the rib cage, compressing and distorting the clavicles and ribs, giving the illusion of long necks. The necklaces are made from a single bronze rod coiled around the neck starting at age five. As they grow older the necklace is removed and the coils adjusted in width and number. Aside from this adjustment the necklaces are never removed. By sixteen the women typically stop adding coils. By adulthood the necklaces weigh upwards of 11 kg.

It is easy to pity these women. The willful disfigurement seems cruel and archaic. And yet, a little research shows a different view. The Padaung people are originally from Myanmar (Burma) where they’ve been brutalized for decades. When Myanmar outlawed the brass rings as barbaric, many Padaung fled to Thailand as refugees. With no legal status, they have limited rights and uncertain status. However, they are left alone to practice their tradition and villages like Baan Tong Luang provide them with an income. Their life here is better than they would have had in Myanmar. They chose to leave Myanmar because of the brass rings. They wear the necklaces as a matter of heritage and choice .

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand (2015) 


For more photos, see my Flickr album at Chiang Mai Hill Tribes





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