By Nemhoilhing (Hoi) Kipgen and Jessica Ramirez of Student Initiative on Asia (SIA)
Two years ago, I met Padaung women on Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar. They wore brass coils around their necks which can weigh over 20 pounds. Much like the Ndebele women in South Africa with neck rings, these brass coils around the neck symbolize wealth, prestige and beauty. Did you know that Padaung women hold the World’s Guinness Record for the longest neck? The recorded measurement is 15¾ inches! It shouldn’t come as a surprise as the word Padaung literally means “long neck” in Shan language. Many women start wearing them around the age of six and they start off by wearing about 3.5 pounds of brass coils. As they age, they continue to add more weight.
Myanmar has diverse ethnic taingyintha groups with more than 130 ethnic languages. The Padaung are a subgroup of Kayah ethnic group who are a subgroup of the Karenni who in turn are a subgroup of the Karen ethnic group. On Inle lake, they weave and sell their handmade bags and traditional garments to countless tourists who pass by on boats. No one really knows how this age-old custom of wearing brass-coils originated, mainly because the Kayan do not have a written language. However, if you ask them, you’ll hear a variety of myths and legends associated with this tradition. Depending on the context and age groups you ask, their answers might vary. For instance, some believe that the neck coils are a protection against attacks from tigers that once roamed the region, whereas others recall ancient times when Padaung women were angels and were captured by male hunters, then brought down to planet Earth. Women were supposed to never remove the rings around their neck or else their souls would get ill and they could die.
Personally, I find it strange, conflicting, yet somehow beautiful that customs and traditions like these still exist today. Sometimes, I wonder if it hinders indigenous women’s mobility and development. The reason is because exotic images of Padaung women with long brass coils around their neck have gained popularity in the Northern province of Thailand where ‘human zoos’ or made-up villages are set up for tourism purposes. Many blog posts have pointed out the ethics of tourism. However, with the ongoing internal armed conflicts in Myanmar, many Padaung people are forced to migrate to Thailand where their means of survival depend on their participation in this type of touristic activity.
Across Southeast Asia, indigenous tourism is experiencing a rise. More efficient forms of travel have made tourism cheaper and more accessible for the public. Remote indigenous communities, which were once frequented only by the occasional foreign anthropologist, have now become open to tourists wanting to witness their exotic way of life. As indigenous peoples slowly integrate themselves into the globalized landscape of the 21st century, what they have to offer to the world are their culture and traditions. While instances of exploitation and exoticization are present like in the case of the Padaung women, there are indigenous groups that are striving to reclaim the tourism industry in their favor.
One example of this is the T’boli indigenous group located in South Cotabato, a province in the southern Philippines. T’boli women are referred to as ‘Dream Weavers’ for the spiritual process with which they weave T’nalak, a traditional cloth made of Abaca plant fiber. The Dream Weavers don’t follow a standard set of patterns. Instead, the designs of the T’nalak come to them in their dreams brought by Fu Dalu, the spirit of the Abaca. It’s these images that the women hand-weave into the T’nalak designs by memory. One T’nalak cloth can take several months to finish. It’s also said that the women are not allowed to engage in sexual intercourse or harbor any ill dispositions during the process to preserve the sanctity of the weave.
The beautifully intricate cloth and the unique weaving process have brought many tourists to the shores of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. Hotels have been built by the municipality’s city-dwellers that feature cultural T’boli tours. Travelers can watch the T’boli perform their traditional dances and weave T’nalak from the comforts of a resort setting.
A young T’boli woman named Jenita Eko found something wrong with this. In a locality where the prices of consumer goods are increasing due to tourism, she understands why her fellow T’boli choose to be hired performers in resorts. However, she says that the full heritage and culture of the T’boli is lost in such impersonal settings. The non-profit which she leads, the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers Association (LASIWWAI), hopes to establish sustainable cultural tourism on their terms. The organization of 85 T’boli weavers promotes ikat weaving not only as a source of livelihood for indigenous women but also as an integral part of their indigenous culture.
Their weaving center is located away from the bustle of tourists and closer to the actual residences of the T’boli. They seek to draw the attention of tourists away from the resort scene and more on the community-level. Amidst their patriarchal community, her group has been carving out a role for women as bearers of T’boli culture and indigenous knowledge. The revenue of each of the T’nalak sold by the women are re-invested into community development initiatives, such as education. Many women weavers dream of becoming educated, though they are hesitant due to marital conflict it causes within the household. The kindergarten built by LASIWWAI offers an avenue for them to learn basic literacy skills alongside their children.
Cases such as these illustrate that indigenous tourism isn’t all unethical. In fact, it can be a source of women’s empowerment and local community development. From the perspective of the traveler, however, it’s important to be mindful of these nuances. Ask yourself: who benefits from this cultural tourist attraction? Who doesn’t? As young people want to explore the world and learn from different cultures, it’s necessary for us to understand the impact we have on local communities we visit.
Photos credits: Nemhoilhing (Hoi) Kipgen.
Disclaimer: these photos of Padaung women were taken by me during my visit to Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar. These photos are in no way intended to exoticize Padaung women. It’s important to consider the context of Myanmar versus Thailand. In contrast to Thailand where they’re forced to migrate and where “tourist villages” exist and their means of survival depends on complying with the Thai authorities, in Myanmar they are promoting their hand-made garments in their own native land, taking advantage of touristic sites like Inle lake.
About the authors: Nemhoilhing (Hoi) Kipgen and Jessica Ramirez are second-year MDEV students at the Graduate Institute. Former flatmates at the Picciotto student residence, they share a common bond on Southeast Asia. Jessica was born and raised in the Philippines and Hoi is a Burmese (Kuki) American who spent 2 years working with Peace Corps Thailand. Through their time at the institute, both would like to stimulate the discourse around their country of origin through their research, findings, and lived experiences. Their Instagram accounts are: @hoikipgem @wakeupjessie