As one does now and then, I’m sitting here thinking about what I want to do with my life, what drives me professionally and why I’ve applied for the master in Responsible Tourism Management – starting next autumn. One bizarre, yet complex situation within the field of tourism impacts (widely categorised), came to my mind.
You may have heard of it or perhaps even done it yourself; the sightseeing of tribe villages in rural Northern Thailand inhabited by the Padaung people, whose women maintain an old tradition of wearing heavy metal rings around their necks. There are many explanations and beliefs for why the women started coiling their necks (even discussed on main stream Youtube and Wikipedia), but the common saying is that they do it for beauty, and/or to prevent getting killed by a tiger (who would attack the neck). Another commonly stated ‘fact’ is that the rings are put onto a girl’s neck from an early age, and that she – if they’re never taken off – gets an abnormally long and weak neck within adulthood. Important to note; it’s actually not the neck itself that stretches but the collar bones that sink down – making the impression of a longer neck.
Peoples’ curiosity and (Western) visitors’ awe over this unique tradition has probably both fueled and replied to the marketing of the females of the Padaung people as astonishing and incredible giraffe women/ long-necks. Today however, the custom is diversely rewarded amongst the women themselves, as the rings’ current purpose is questioned amongst both visitors and indigenous peoples’ groups. It is in other words, a situation that thrives both mythological and ethical debates, with the latter mainly concerning the exploitation of the women as tourist attractions Thailand since the 1990s.
Now, let’s first of all remember that the fact that people are tourist attractions themselves isn’t really new at all. Some Scottish men line up on touristy streets in London with their skirts and sack pipes for a living, and although we’re living in the 21st century some Norwegian youth still choose to work on remote farms in summer with traditional clothes on so that tourists can come and see “Real Norway”.
Not to mention the Masai people in Kenya jumping their asses off everyday inside any game reserve to show tourists what authentic Masai culture is about. They’re not doing it because they’re constantly jumping elsewhere, they probably wear jeans and t-shirts when off duty. Point is, people working in (a place with lots of) tourism often entertain their visitors in an attempt to add value to the tourist’s experience. It’s their job: They entertain, earn money and proudly or not, show off bits of their culture. Thing is however; the Europeans doing this probably all have a health insurance, and could even easily get another job. Some of them probably earn good money and feel their lives are much freer and flexible this way as opposed to if they were working for a corporate, or in a post office.
The Masais on their side, despite of living in a third world country – and having been oppressed in various ways throughout history with regards to land grabbing etc. – are actually quite known for being in control of the way they’re part of “cultural commodification”. Studies I’ve come across state they earn fair money on tourism, interact a lot with visitors, move around freely and thus aren’t considered very exploited (I’m sure there are many sides of that story, but for now I leave it at this).
As for the tribe women in Northern Thailand, I’ve learned that they’re most likely not earning much at all through tourism. Truth is that although they represent major tourist attraction in many places, it wasn’t actually their own idea to become such magnets, and due to language barriers etc. they’re actually not in too much control over the whole phenomenon. As one could argue a Scottish man is if he become one, or as I’ve exemplified how the Masai people seem in control of their work as attractions.
The giraffe women on the other hand are members of the originally Burmese Karenni people – specifically the tribe called Padaung as previously mentioned (FYI: The tag giraffe women or long neck is (re)invented for tourism marketing), but commonly call themselves Kayan – just to complicate things a little. Due to their “unsuitable” religious beliefs (Christianity) and major ethnic conflicts in Burma over two decades ago, the Padaungs were allowed to settle in small villages in the Northern regions of Thailand (as other Burmese hill tribes had done before them). However, the Padaungs still represent a small group of stateless people, as the Thai government never entitled them the same rights as other citizens during all these years! In which regard they were given limited access to electricity and water, and still live in very poor conditions.
But quite quickly someone predicted there was a potential solution to this: With the Padaung women’s special neck-coiling-customs they could attract people willing to pay a fee to see them with their own eyes. Which with the ever-since booming tourism industry in Thailand proved them quite right as long-neck tourism turned into a big thing in the 90s. There is only one major problem to this according to Tourism Concern (the watch dog organisation I’m assisting), and other human rights organisations: that tourism revenue doesn’t really go back into the tribe members’ pockets. It’s left with the tour operators. Moreover, women have reported they’re forced to stay in the villages and work as tourist attractions – which seems to prove the main issue here – that the Thai government is keeping these people as if in prison, due to their appeal (more on their rationale for this later).
This article by Cultural Survival tells about how women that wished to remove the coils, where forced not to, so that they could continue working as attractions. And in this article from 2009, a former giraffe-neck woman called Zember, tells how she removed the rings in anger when the Thai government refused to let her and other family members refugee to New Zealand, even though they’d got their asylum applications approved there through UNHCR. According to the article, the Thai government rationalised their refusal by claiming that the Padaungs are regarded a Thai tribe hill now (after decades of not being regarded as such – which was part of the reason they lived under such bad conditions in the country), and crucially: that their culture needs to be protected. This protection-of-their-culture argument is confirmed on this tourism promo site about Chiang Mai.
Supported by UNHCR officers in Thailand, Zember therefore speaks out on behalf of her community about the longtime exploitation of her tribe in tourism due to their special custom of coiling their necks with brass rings: A situation she states they became part of quickly – and unwillingly – after settling in Thailand. “We didn’t know they’re getting money from the tourists, we couldn’t speak English or Thai. The older generation were grateful to have a means of surviving, but did not understand tourist comments that they were a “human zoo”. Ours is the first generation who can read and write.” For herself therefore, Zember decided to remove the rings in order to look for a better life, not because she rejects her culture, but because they’re a weapon of exploitation by powerful local Thai authorities. “Long-neck tourism is big business in Mae Hong Son, but little of the money returns to the Kayans — the operations have always been run by Thais”.
Similar to what I’ve read of human rights organisation work on this, Zember describes how the Padaung are exploited in tourism. Women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month to run souvenir stalls, and can earn a little extra by selling traditionally weaved scarves. Men in the villages receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month. In one village, Hway Su Thao, the women have had their tourism income deducted for riding motorbikes, talking to foreigners outside the village or attending educational courses that keep them away from the village during the day.
Though I find it very admirable of Zember to speak out this way, I get frustrated to see there is little information available on the subject. When searching online for information about the giraffe women and their inclusion in the Thai tourism sector, I find bloggers writing about their amazing experience watching them (and posting pictures), but little on people’s concern. One reason to this is obviously the fact that most travelers don’t know about the background of the current situation, and a guide working in the field won’t possibly tell them that they’re fueling exploitation.
Of online media content about the matter I only find a few published things, in addition to some academic research. Then again – and related to similar subjects – it’s for sure challenging and time consuming to research such topics in-depth. The language barriers for a foreign academic or journalist can be massive, not to mention how it’s often difficult to get members from marginalised communities to speak out due to their status as oppressed and fear/threat of punishment. Unfortunately, this is ironically part of the reason why marginalised people stay marginalised.
Despite of having few sources telling us what the Kayan women themselves feel, my impression remains that of the ones that speak out, either are:
- young women speaking out on behalf of the community stating they’re exploited for tourism revenue (some of whom have taken of the rings and fled in order to do something else with their lives)
- old women stating to wear the rings to protect their traditions and culture, and that they don’t mind tourists coming to watch them
This all fosters important questions like: How to deal with this situation if we assume both the above groups are right about how they see it? More essentially: What if everyone stopped going to their villages? What would actually happen to the income level of these women and their tribe? How would they be treated by the government if they refuse obeying like they’ve done for decades?
When debating rights and wrong in tourism, one quickly finds a lot of polarizing opinions and realistic, yet complex, intertwined truths. Some think it’s better that the tribe people – who aren’t given the same freedom as regular Thai people to look for jobs, or get an education despite of having lived in Thailand for decades – earn some money through tourism, rather than nothing.
Others think that the Thai government should take responsibility and first of all stop exploiting tribe people for tourism revenue, as well as entitle them the same rights as any other Thai tribes, so that they can choose what they want to do with their lives themselves. Judging from common sense and the interview with Zember, Id go for the latter suggestion. Realistically though, we also know this isn’t happening. Yet.
My little research and blog rambling however is based on some understanding of the situation. To actually have a job projecting me to get a deeper understanding of these bizarre, yet complex situations would be a dream! An understanding whose results could be shared with the involved stakeholders, including good recommendations on how they all can do something about it. And then I’m not only referring to involved actors related to the Kayan/Padaungs, but all kinds of exploitative operations in tourism. Unfortunately they’re way too many.
Thus I’m very excited to soon learn more about how to approach, detect and change them. In the meantime; please go here to get some advices on how to take action with regard to topics like the above.