MAUNG TAN, Thailand -- Until five years ago, the Burmese "giraffe" women were dying out. Few modern women of the Padaung tribe were interested in wearing 10 to 20 pounds of 6- to 12-inch brass coils that seem to elongate their necks grotesquely. It wasn't beautiful anymore, just uncomfortable.
Then the 44-year-old civil war among the Burmese heated up. Now a tradition as disfiguring as bound feet is being revived for the sake of tourism. Padaung women in exile in Thailand are donning neck coils again not because they've changed their minds about their unattractiveness, but because being tourist attractions is the only way they can feed their families.
Having fled one of the most repressive military governments in the world, the Padaung are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Afraid to return to their country, now called Myanmar, they live in Thailand, a country that doesn't want them and won't help them. And they're being taken advantage of by enterprising business people who are misleading tourists about the refugees' predicament.
The Padaung's problems began several years ago when the Burmese army, on a stepped-up campaign to subdue and control minority ethnic areas, grabbed villagers to become porters, a euphemism for slaves, or moved them into harsh relocation camps and burned their villages.
Men, women and children captured for porter duty must haul the army's equipment over jungle trails. They are fed only two handfuls of rice a day. Some do duty as human minesweepers. Women who have escaped report they were raped every night. Untold numbers have died.
Thousands of people, including many belonging to the 30,000-member Padaung tribe, fled to Thailand, where they live in limbo. Thailand, which has lucrative logging and natural gas contracts with the Myanmar government, doesn't want to disturb business, and so it won't recognize the 50,000 Burmese currently on its borders as refugees. That means the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stymied by a rule that it must be invited by a country that says it has refugees, can't help them.
Most of the refugees from Myanmar live in crude villages they built in the jungle. Their ethnic governments-in-exile and nongovernmental relief organizations provide minimal food, clothing and medical care.
"We left our village in Burma suddenly seven years ago," said Motay, a Padaung woman whose neck coils keep her as immobile as someone in a rigid cast. "We brought nothing when we left."
Army seizes porters
"The army went from village to village to grab porters," said Lahai, her brother. "We knew of two or three people who had died from being porters. Even now, some people haven't returned from porter duty. We traveled along the Pei River. As the troops advanced, we moved. We moved three times before this place."
When they first arrived on the Thai border, the Padaung were helped by the Karenni tribe government-in-exile. Then the Padaung were discovered by Thai entrepreneurs, who offered them a deal. In exchange for living in a separate settlement with slightly better conditions than the other refugee villages, and for being put on display seven days a week, 10 hours a day, each woman wearing a neck coil would receive $40 a month, each young girl $20 a month. Their families would receive a monthly allotment of rice.
BTC "There was no negotiation," said Pan Teng, the 33-year-old chief of Maung Tan, a Padaung village of about 80 people, about 20 of whom are women and girls who wear the neck coils. "We didn't know what to ask for. The deal is fine with us. We were interested in seeing the foreigners."
The Thai entrepreneurs charge Western and Japanese tourists $12 per person to see the Padaung, which they call the "long-necked" tribe. Thai visitors are charged $2. The numbers of people who visit the two villages near Mae Hong Son, a popular travel spot in northern Thailand, range from three or four a day in the off-season to hundreds during the tourist season.
Tourists arrive early
Business in Maung Tan began early one recent Sunday morning. As the river highway roared to life, the first group of 10 tourists arrived noisily by boat at 8:15 a.m..
The visitors, most of them nattily dressed city folk from Bangkok, walked down the dirt square in the middle of the village. The Thai flag moved restlessly on a flagpole. Thin lines of pink flowering spinach surrounded each of the 13 wood-and-bamboo homes. At the end of the village, past the community outhouses, three rattan shrines hung from a huge tree, one for each year the Padaung have lived in this village.
Padaung women and girls, wearing makeup that turned their cheeks white and their lips red, and dressed in "longyis," Burmese sarongs, sat primly on porches under roofs thatched with tree leaves. They leaned their long necks encased in coils of brass toward the visitors.
Although their necks look as if they are stretched to twice or three times their normal length, the brass coils actually push their chests down. Until the late 1970s, when a U.S. physician published X-rays of a Padaung woman in National Geographic magazine, many people thought the coils stretched the vertebrae.
The women don't know what the coils do to their anatomy. They just know that they face another day of posing and smiling for the cameras of jostling strangers from Bangkok, Japan, Taiwan, Europe and the United States.
"We were first afraid of the tourists," said Lahai as he watched a second group of 30 tourists arrive a half-hour later. "They looked so clean. We had never seen people so clean."
Restrictions on men
Some guides told tourists that this village was just one among Thailand's many picturesque hill tribes. Others said the long-necks were refugees and were being given food, medicine and education by the Thai government. Neither story is true. The Padaung never lived in Thailand before the Burmese army drove them out. The Thai government isn't helping them. In fact, it won't let the men farm land or take jobs in Mae Hong Son or allow their children to attend Thai schools.
Nevertheless, the Padaung are now one of the major tourist attractions of northern Thailand. Thai tourist businesses advertise trips to Padaung villages. The women's photos are on postcards distributed from Mae Hong Son to Bangkok.
The tourists are full of questions: Do you sleep with the rings on? Yes, explain the Padaung, by loosening the connection between the two coils that make up the neck ring. When do you first begin wearing them? At 5 years old, they say, when a coil one-third-inch in diameter is wrapped around their necks.
The women don't say that some of them began wearing the neck coils just three years ago to make money. They don't explain that a traditional punishment for adultery used to be removal of the coils so that the weak neck flops over and suffocates the woman.
A few tourists buy some of the bright pink weavings made by the Padaung women, who tuck the payment into the space between their necks and the brass coils.
Lahai, ignored by tourists, settled onto his porch for the day. The novelty of the foreigners has worn off. The Padaung appreciate that the money they earn provides them a better living than their neighboring refugees. Except for the tradition of the brass coils, however, they are losing their culture, their way of life, he said.
"Our face has become smaller [we have lost dignity]," he explained. "We want the world to help us get back to our home and live in peace. We cannot do this on our own. We are not strong enough. If we don't get help, we will just disappear."