CHIANG MAI SERIES : DRAGONS WITH COILS

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After I greeted,“Hello!” and asked her name that slipped my poor memory, this old woman of Kayan, a refugee tribe from Myanmar whose age is beyond 60s, displayed the faintest smile and teary eyes. Her reactions were almost infectious. She’s one of those called by lowland Burmese as Padaung women or long necked. They wear spiral metal coils of many turns on their necks for believing that like dragons and swans, having long necks is beautiful.
I continued to start a short conversation by asking the prices of the souvenir items she sells, she replied with the least audible voice. She exuded weariness and a pleasant lassitude as she tried to make a living that day. I bought one of her purple woven scarves as a souvenir for my wife. I even dared to haggle for 180 baht instead of 200; my biggest regret in this recent trip.
This was our Thai tour guide, Mr. Oak in blue shirt leading the way to the so called-Long Neck Women village.

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Before I went to Chiang Mai, I read the worst and unpleasant descriptions written online by people who perceived this place negatively.
Human Zoo. Human Giraffe. Tourist Trap. Hostages to Tourism. Thailand Freak Show.
Perceptions are something subjective and beyond one’s control.
Listening to our tour guide’s explanation about these uniquely beautiful women provided us information of their origin and their past. Mr. Oak’s serious yet casual annotations that were candidly interrupted by his spontaneous humor made this trip more fascinating. While excitedly walking inside their village, Oak pointed a dog and called it, the long-neck-dog :p

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Our group of 10-tourists from Australia, Japan, China, New Zealand and the Philippines (who’s currently based in Malaysia) learned that these coils were traditionally worn only by Padaung women as young as 5 or 6 years old. The long coils on the neck are an alloy of brass, silver and gold. It was noted that Kayan tribe women wear them not only to symbolize beauty like that of dragons and swans but as a protective measures from tigers, which are known to attack their preys on the neck.

I had no idea about the National Geographic’s feature on these Kayan-Padaung women. I only read about it on the comment-thread of my facebook friends under the photo I posted on fb. It was the team of NatGeo who subjected one of the Padaung women to cervical X-ray to medically determine if the neck bones were really stretched. Roentgenographic report showed that the seven vertebral bones on the neck remained the same in size, although the intervertebral disks absorbed additional fluid,  it is their clavicles or collar bones that were compressed, lowered and collapsed by years of wearing those metallic neck rings, creating an illusion that the neck is elongated.

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I don’t know about you but after spending almost an hour with them, these women earned my respect for they continue to practice their customs and traditions amidst the digital age and beyond being refugees to Thailand from Burma now called, Myanmar. It’s simply depressing that despite Thailand’s Tourism boosts with the visits of the tourists to see them, the Padaung women with their families still remain aliens with no papers in Thailand. And because of this, they’re not allowed (as of this blogging) to go down the city and sell their commodities.

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Usually, they remove then add additional coils every after 3 to 10 years. They do not only wear the metal coils on their necks but also below the knees too.
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I salute them for preserving their identity, cultures and beliefs despite and in spite of everything.
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A family of Kayan…
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They all flashed ready smiles when I politely asked if I can take their photos. This perhaps made the other people think that these women really are being used for Tourism.
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By Padaung women’s tradition, girls born on a Wednesday of a full moon are required to wear the metal coils on their necks.
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I found out by talking to them that these two are sisters but it saddened me to know that the elder sister stopped schooling to give way for the young one. Something that’s very common too in some Filipino rural settings.

I bought fridge magnets from them; they didn’t only smile but said, “Thank you!” which I appreciated because simple gratitude is a rarity nowadays.

The village also houses other tribes. This lady belongs to the so-called Akha. These women originally came from Yunnan province of China, Laos, and Myanmar who also migrated to Northen parts of Thailand -Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Their spectacular and elaborate headdresses made them pretty remarkable than the other hill tribes plus the fact that unlike the Kayan Long Neck Women, Akha people were granted legal papers to Thailand so they’re all free to roam around the city and sell their stuffs at night markets and everywhere without restrictions.

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A refugee from China…

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Another Chinese refugee with colorful and elaborate traditional dress worn with thick brass belt.

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Of all the hill tribe women I met in that village, this particular one who chews betel nut, which probably unknown to her and her tribe, is carcinogenic or cancer-causing (Nasopharyngeal Cancer), greeted us in a very light and cheerful mood. Despite living the simplest life of no-gadgets and free from expensive possessions, she remain happy and carefree. Something I am reminded of. Something we all need to reflect on.
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Joy in simple things. Contentment sans modern lifestyle.
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From these young lady, I bought Gabby’s souvenir vibrant tribal hat, which my son wore in welcoming New Year at home.

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There were tribal women who adorned themselves with metal coils and ornate headdresses, now meet the other women who consider having huge earring holes as remarkably wonderful.
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Is that a smartphone on her hand?

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Do they wear make up as part of tradition or for tourism? Do they wear neck rings only for money? Again, perception is subjective.
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Meeting these women even only for brief chat and photo-ops reminded me of some of the most important things in life.

People with strong principles can really stand on their personal beliefs, can fight for their own traditions and can go against the dictate of others.
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It was an unforgettable opportunity for me to briefly interact with these women in Chiang Mai.  I considered myself blessed as I met, talked and sat beside one of the most beautiful dragons in the world.
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“We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.”
— Paulo Coelho
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40 thoughts on “CHIANG MAI SERIES : DRAGONS WITH COILS

    1. thanks, alex! i call that photo -“the vilma-santos-long-neck-version” *kidding*

      really appreciate your words! punta ka na ng chiang mai, tapos daan kayo bangkok-hat yai-penang.:)

    1. i felt the same way too when i spent that late afternoon with them.
      the experience was something i never i regret doing because it reminded me many things about life.
      thanks, ms. elna!

  1. didn’t have the time (but mostly budget, haha) to visit this tribe. Seeing them makes one think what a person needs simply to live in this world eh?

    great profile photos of these women, especially the smiling ones. 🙂

    nagnosebleed ako sa invertebrate and vertebral and clavicles. hehe

  2. I am always impressed by communities that are able to preserve their customs and traditions despite the pressures of modernization. – reena (i left a msg using my wordpress account which ive never used ever! haha. this is the reason why they disallow me to leave a comment using my blogger name)

    1. i saw photos they sell that show their activities of daily living -you know of course- taking showers, sleeping, and eating -all done with those coils on for years. and apparently, friction creates lesions on their skin; i saw it not only on their pictures but on youtube video from nat geo too. the loops aren’t tightly colied allowing them to breath and swallow normally. but certainly it renders them discomfort.

      the fact that they do these practices not for the sake of tourism alone but to preserve their identity made me appreciate their tribe more.

      thanks, dennis!

  3. .. an interesting example of body modification. i wonder if these women suffer ill-effects caused by the neck rings. such a spinal deformations like scoliosis.

    .. do you have to give them “tips” if you have to take a picture? that young lady whom you bought a tribal hat for gab.. i think she’s beautiful.

    1. she smiled at me and gave me a good price for gabby’s hat. 🙂

      no, i only asked permission prior taking their photos, i didn’t give any tip (kuripot!) but as mentioned, i bought a few souvenirs (hat, scarf & ref magnet).

    1. they have preserved their tradition of wearing them, bert, so yes it’s a continuing tribal practice and not merely for tourism.
      it’s not only in chiang mai that padaung women are found but other northern parts of thailand bordering myanmar.
      they’re all refugees.

      here’s a link to youtube video of national geographic no less about them http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL8ARB5FmsA

    1. hi marian! yes, they take showers with those coils on as it cannot be removed easily.
      they only remove and add coils every 3-10 years.

      glad you resurrected your blog! it’s high time!!! 😀

  4. Doc..thank you for sharing you life lesson with this travel…ended when we travel we should not only enjoy the things we see but also try to understand the real story behind those beauty.

  5. this post is so rich in cultural value. i really envy your experience with the tribes people. thanks a lot for sharing this. i wonder how this experience would have affected gabby if he were there with you.

    1. wow, i’ll take that as a compliment! thank you very much, maria!
      you’re too generous with words. 🙂

      i didn’t see any young ones (i mean, teenagers and younger) visiting that hill tribe village.
      it’s actually a part of a whole-day-tour in chiang mai that i availed for a very affordable & reasonable price.
      details and info on the succeeding posts, so stay tuned!

  6. I had missed reading this Chiang Mai series, sobrang touch ako regarding their predicaments. We will constantly bug you Doc Gelo, as we decided to explore Th Rose of North in December.

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