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Monday, November 5, 2007

Touristic experiences #1: Thailand's 'longnecks'

There’s been so much written about and so many photos taken of the ‘longneck’ tribes from Burma (Myanmar) who reside in northern Thailand that it’s almost redundant to talk about them in terms of a Thai travel experience. Do you visit them or not? My partner Terry and I have been discussing the issue. This blog is by Terry:

By visiting the ‘longnecks’, the displaced Burmese women who wear brass coils around their elongated necks, are we perpetuating a method of lifelong discomfort (at the least) for these women that’s the equivalent of the lotus shoes that kept Chinese women’s bound feet tiny and ‘feminine’ (albeit deformed)? Or are we supporting a displaced tribe that relies on the income generated by tourists to survive? While the Lonely Planet Thailand guide we perused in a hotel gave the visit a positive spin, Rough Guide took the opposite tack. Given that Lara and I spend our lives telling people where to go (so to speak!), we decided we’d better visit to form our own opinions...

The signs proclaiming "longneck this way" as we approached the co-operative tribal village on the outskirts of Chiang Rai reinforced my already apprehensive outlook. Surely people visiting the women could at least learn the name of the tribe, the Padaung, a sub-group of the Karen tribe, and those putting up the signs would have enough respect to do the same. To me it was very much “roll up, roll up, see the mustachioed woman!” It placed the women at the ‘freak show’ end of the range of touristic experiences.

The entry fee was steep for Thailand and we wondered how much money the ‘longnecks’ were getting out of this. A disinterested little Thai girl served as our guide, taking us first to meet a beautiful old woman from the Akha tribe. She wasn’t a ‘longneck’, but was the kind of grandma whose face lights up when she smiles, revealing a life well lead and an old age well earned. I took her portrait and hoped that it captured in ones and zeros some of the spirit she possessed. Next, we were led to a simple building where a group of tribespeople played traditional music. While the elaborate headdresses were in place, enthusiasm was conspicuously absent. Some t-shirt-clad members of the troupe clearly wanted to be anywhere else but standing in front of a couple of travellers looking for a ‘cultural experience’. The embarrassment of the situation was evident on both sides. Before the song had finished several had their headdresses off and were wandering away.

After passing the obligatory stands of handicrafts our guide happily pronounced ‘longneck!’ with a flourish. As soon as I saw the intriguing face of the first Padaung woman sitting on the verandah of her wooden hut weaving textiles on a primitive loom, I knew I couldn’t shoot any photos to sell (I left the task of shooting pics for this blog to Lara who chatted to the woman about weaving). I’d seen this very woman on countless postcards and her image had been exploited enough. From a purely aesthetic point of view, she was photogenic, but I felt no compulsion to photograph her. I like to shoot portraits when I feel that someone has an interesting face and sense a confidence in themselves and who they are that can shine through in a photo. Here I felt that I'd just be shooting her for her physical oddity rather than her beauty of spirit, which, I must say, she certainly possessed. We asked her about her weaving and moved on.
We met a couple of other ‘longnecks’, both of whom I'd also seen on postcards, but while several tourists snapped away, I just wanted to leave. On the way back to the car we crossed paths with two cute ‘longneck’ children with a couple of rings around their necks. I thought of what lay in store for them in the future – drinking through a straw, working a loom, and being happy-snapped by gawking tourists as they live their life in what is essentially a cruel neck brace.

I often make jokes about my professional digital SLR camera being the ‘soul stealer’, as it’s so big, especially with a flash attached, that it makes people apprehensive when I shoot their portrait. And in some customs the creation of an image or likeness of a person is seen as stealing their soul. I always ask before shooting a portrait, but with the ‘longnecks’ the price of admission gives you carte blanche to snap away. To me, there’s never been a more soul-stealing experience than this. Every snapshot someone takes of the Padaung women is directly contributing to the creation of another generation of young women who have to uphold this tradition. There’s no doubt about it. The complexities of cultural identity aside, the commodification and marketing of the experience is just as abhorrent as the practice itself. Many other cruel decorative practices, such as the Chinese lotus shoes, have been phased out. So should this. The fact that another generation of women will suffer the same indignity aided by my financial contribution makes me uncomfortable. Do you think you’d feel the same way?

2 comments:

Wanderlust Woman said...

I could almost feel your discomfort when reading this post -- and I felt it too. I generally found any experiences like this in Thailand (promoting authentic tribes) to be ones that you will want to avoid. So sad...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your honest thoughts about what you experienced in the Long Necks Village.
I have been there, 1995 � I had a very good, serious guide and she told me about all the different diseases the long necks women suffer because of the fact that
they can not clean the part of the body that is cover with the rings and e g malaria flies has full access to the neck and the entire body.
I met an old grand grandmother who was dieing and she told me how sorry she was because she had given birth to a daughter on the �right� date and her daughter
gave birth to a daughter at the same �right� time.
Yes, the Thai government is given money to the tribe to make them continue this tradition.
I think it would be interesting to put some focus on this people and ask the government questions.
On the other hand there are so many young girls � and boys suffering in other ways in
Thailand due to prostitution and the sick business of children sold every day and night to paedophiles.
Still I like Thailand very much and I visit as often as I can and I hope a lot of people
do the same and that we at every visit try to make a change.
Kind Regards
Elizabeth Wir�ng- Borjesson
Stockholm, Sweden