The Karen Padaung are a sub group of the Karen Hill Tribe people, they are famous for the neck rings worn by the women of the tribe. There is said to be a population of approximately50,000 people in total, most of whom live near the Thai Burma border area. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Karen tribes fled to the Thailand, due to conflict with the military regime in Burma.
The Thai government granted them refugee status, but they only allowed them to live in certain areas. Since then they have become a tourist attraction, with villages offering tours to come and view the long neck women. There are three of these Karen villages in Mae Hong Son province in Thailand. The largest is on the Pai river, close to the Thai Burma border.
The Karen Padaung believe that a long neck is a sign of beauty, and they use neck rings made of brass to stretch the neck of the women of the tribe. It is said that in the past, these rings were applied in order to protect the women from tigers that may try to attack by biting the neck. These rings are first applied to young girls as young as 5 years old. Over the years each ring or coil is replaced with longer coil, as the weight of the brass coils pushes down on the collar bone it compresses the rib cage. Many people believe that the neck is stretched, when in fact the neck is not actually lengthened; the illusion of a longer neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.
In Thailand these villages are an important part of the economy in some areas. Tourists are charged approximately 10USD per person in order to enter these “Human Zoos”. Once they are inside there is heavy pressure to buy souvenirs and arts and crafts. In January 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner expressed concerns about tourists visiting these villages in Northern Thailand due to the Provincial Government’s refusal to allow these refugees to take up offers of resettlement in other countries. Armed rebel groups in Burma have expressed interest in returning the refugees to the Kayah State in order to set up their own tourist villages.
We believe that tourists should not participate in the exploitation of these or any other people. By paying a fee to go and look at people you are taking part in their exploitation. The women receive only a small percentage of the profits that are made, most of the money goes to Thai tour operators.
The girls of these tribes will never have the freedom to choose not to participate in this tradtion as long as tourists make it profitable. By paying to visit one of these villages, you are ensuring that more 5 year old girls will be forced to wear the neck rings.
If it were not for the exploitation of these tribes, this tradition would have likely died long ago. In 2006, many of the young women in Mae Hong Son started to remove their rings either to give them the opportunity to continue their education, or in protest against the exploitation of their culture. In 2008, most of the young women who entered these refugee camps removed their rings. One older woman who wore the rings for over 40 years also removed her rings.