The most famous – and notorious – of the Mae Hong Son area’s spectacles is its contingent of “long-neck” women, members of the tiny Kayan Lahwi tribe of Burma (sometimes called Padaung) who have come across to Thailand to escape Burmese repression. Though the women’s necks appear to be stretched to 30cm and more by a column of brass rings, the “long-neck” tag is a technical misnomer: a National Geographic team once X-rayed one of the women and found that instead of stretching out her neck, the pressure of eleven pounds of brass had simply squashed her collarbones and ribs. Girls of the tribe start wearing the rings from about the age of 6, adding one or two each year up to the age of 16 or so. Once fastened, the rings are for life, for to remove a full stack may eventually cause the collapse of the neck and suffocation – in the past, removal was a punishment for adultery.
The origin of the ring-wearing ritual remains unclear, despite an embarrassment of plausible explanations. Kayan Lahwi legend says that the mother of their tribe was a dragon with a long, beautiful neck, and that their unique custom is an imitation of her. Tour guides will tell you the practice is intended to enhance the women’s beauty. In Burma, where it is now outlawed as barbaric, it’s variously claimed that ring-wearing arose out of a need to protect women from tiger attacks or to deform the wearers so that the Burmese court would not kidnap them for concubines.
In spite of their handicap (they have to use straws to drink, for example), the women are able to carry out some kind of an ordinary life: they can marry and have children, and they’re able to weave and sew, although these days they spend most of their time posing like circus freaks for photographs. Only half of the Kayan Lahwi women now lengthen their necks; left to follow its own course, the custom would probably die out, but the influence of tourism may well keep it alive for some time yet. The villages in Mae Hong Son, and now also in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, where they live, are set up by Thai entrepreneurs as a money-making venture (visitors are charged B500 to enter these villages). At least, contrary to many reports, the “long necks” are not held as slaves – they are each paid a living wage of about B1500 per month – though their plight as refugees is certainly precarious and vulnerable. Since 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has been offering permanent resettlement in third countries for about twenty Kayan Lahwi. However, the authorities in Thailand, where the “long necks” bring in a huge amount of tourist dollars every year, have refused to sign the necessary paperwork on a technicality. Our advice (see Tours and trekking around Mae Hong Son) is not to visit the villages.