Although they are a small minority hill tribe in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, no description of Thai hill tribes would be complete without mentioning the Padaung or Paduang hill tribe, better known to the world as the tribe of the long neck women. Most people have heard of the Padaung hill tribe from television documentaries, magazines and travel books as the giraffe women hill tribe of Thailand.
The Paduang hill tribe, where the women wear huge brass rings around the neck are not a individual tribe but a sub-group of the Karen hill tribes.The famous Paduang or giraffe women hill tribe is located near Ban Nam Phiang Din, in the Mae Hong Son province of Northern Thailand, just at the border of Myanmar (Burma), in a small secluded valley right outside the provincial City “Mae Hong Son” of the Mae Hong Son province.
Of the 7000 members of the Palong hill tribe in Burma, about 300 fled to Thailand, about twenty years ago, to escape the Burmese repression. With the help of the Thai government, they set up the Paduang refugee-village in a small valley of Mae Hong Son province.Today,the Paduang hill tribe in the Golden Triangle of Thailand counts about 485 members .
Nowadays, the small refugee village of the long necked Paduang hill tribe, is completely geared towards visitors and tourists and is seemingly on every tour agency’s day-trip list. The Long-necked Paduang have become the most popular tourist attraction of all the hill tribes in Thailand.
The women of the Padaung hill tribe wear heavy brass ornaments around their neck and limbs. These ornaments look like separate rings but are really a continuous coil of brass that can weigh anywhere from five to twenty-two kilograms and measure up to 30 meter in length. The quantity of visual rings (in reality, the length of the brass coil) is increased every year, according to the age of the woman.Young Paduang girls start wearing rings from the age of six, adding one or two more coil-turns (or visual rings) yearly, until the age of about 16. Once fastened, the rings are for life, to remove the full coil of brass would cause the collapse or even fracture of the woman’s neck.
In the past, removal of the brass rings was a punishment for adultery. The punishment was, that since the neck muscles had severely weakened, by years of not supporting the neck, the woman must spend the rest of her life, holding her head with both hands or lying down.It is a myth, that the brass rings have elongate the neck of the wearer. Any orthopedic surgeon will tell you that: lengthening the neck would lead to paralysis or even death.The reality is, that the appearance of a longer neck is a visual illusion. The weight of the brass rings has over the years pushed down and deformed the collar bone plus the upper ribs, to such an effect that the collar bone appears to be part of the neck.
Despite the obvious discomfort and the daily task of cleaning the brass ring coil, plus other handicaps, like having to use a straw to drink, the Paduang hill tribes women say that they are used to their custom and are happy in continuing the tribe’s tradition.The women are able to carry out a somewhat ordinary life: they can marry and have children, and they are able to weave, sew and do light work. Although these days, they spend most of their time, making money, by posing as circus freaks for the tourists visiting the hill tribes in Northern Thailand.
These days, less than half of the young Padaung hill tribe women start lengthening their necks. The custom will probably slowly die out in Thailand, but the influence of tourism and the income from tourists, may well keep the tradition alive for some generations to come.In Myanmar (Burma), starting to wear the brass rings, for young girls, has been outlawed as barbaric and the tradition has nearly died out along the Burmese Palong hill tribes.
The origin of the ring-wearing ritual in the Padaung hill tribes remain unclear. Palong hill tribe mythology says that the mother of all Palong’s was half woman, half dragon, with a long, beautiful neck, and that their unique custom is a tribute to their mother-dragon.Other Paduang legends say that it is done to prevent tigers from biting their neck when roving in the jungle. It is also claimed that it was used to make the women look unattractive so that other tribes would not capture them and sell as slaves.