Her face can be found on postcards all across Thailand, but only the people who live in her village, Nai Soi, on the remote Thai-Myanmar border, know her name. It is Ma Da.
Ma Da belongs to the Padaung hill-tribe, whose female members are better known as ‘long necks’ or ‘giraffe women’. She is young, witty and beautiful.
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As Padaung custom dictates, she wears heavy brass rings on her neck, arms and legs. Her chin juts over the top ring of a thick coil which spirals around her throat and reaches down to her collarbones.
The coil gives the effect of elongating her neck, making it look as though her head is perched upon a plinth. In reality the weight of the brass rings has severely compressed her shoulder bones and ribcage, creating only the illusion that her neck is longer.
Twenty-eight-year-old Ma Da began wearing the rings as a child and never removes them – even to sleep. Her days at Nai Soi are spent posing for photos for busloads of tourists who pay to gawp at her bewitchingly exotic appearance.
Ma Da accepts her fate with grace, but the story of how she and other long-neck females became poster girls for the Thai tourism industry is a sorry one.
The Padaung, or the Kayan as the tribe calls itself, are a minority group hailing from Kayah State in Myanmar. The first few waves of Padaung reportedly arrived in northern Thailand with Karenni fighters who were retreating from warfare against the oppressive Myanmar regime.
Older Padaung tell stories of Myanmar government soldiers burning their crops and villages, raping their women and children, and killing their men.
The long-necks were herded into makeshift villages straddling the border, where their crowd-pulling potential was quickly spotted. Enterprising Thais, exiled Karennis and foreign tour companies joined forces to turn the refugees into a lucrative tourist attraction. More Padaung followed, this time lured by the prospect of eking out a living in these ‘human zoos’.
Ma Da made the hazardous journey from Myanmar to Thailand with her mother 18 years ago. They arrived in Nai Soi with no food, no possessions, no money and no work. Ma Da had never been outside her home in the isolated Myanmar countryside before, and found her early experiences terrifying.
“I had never seen things like cars, televisions and cameras,” she recalls. “The first time I saw a car I ran and hid until it disappeared over the hill. I was very frightened because it was so big, black and noisy.”
Her mother soon found work running one of the souvenir stalls in a long alleyway of wooden shops in Nai Soi that sell long-neck dolls, key chains, woven shawls and postcards.
Aged nine, Ma Da began wearing the brass rings on her neck and working alongside her mother.
“I will never forget my first day,” she says. “Many tourists spilled off the buses and all crowded around the shop. They were from Spain and Belgium. They started staring and pointing and taking pictures of me. They tried to speak to me in foreign languages and I couldn’t understand anything. I was so scared that I ran away into the jungle and cried and cried.”
These days Ma Da is accustomed to being a living exhibit. Yet she insists she wears the rings, which often cause painful chaffing and itching as they rub against the skin, out of pride in her culture.
“I choose to wear the rings not because my mother wants me to or because I can make money from tourists, but because they are beautiful. They make me feel beautiful when I wear them and Padaung men think they are beautiful too,” she adds coyly.
There are a number of theories about how the custom originated. One is that Padaung men began placing rings around the necks of their womenfolk more than 200 years ago to make them less attractive to men from rival tribes in the Kayah region. Another is that the rings were intended to deter slave traders.
But, however it started, a heavily-coiled wife is now considered a sign of status and wealth in Padaung culture, and Ma Da intends to continue that tradition. “I will wear the rings until I am an old woman like my grandmother,” she declares.
This is not the first time that Padaung women have been put on public display. A troupe of long-necks toured England in the 1930s as part of the famous Bertram Mills Circus.
They were such a sensation that a second troupe was recruited from the rugged hinterlands of what was then called Burma and now Myanmar. They soon found themselves transported around British fairgrounds on a converted double-decker bus.
Today, guards from the Karenni tribe stand at the entrances to the Padaung villages and charge foreign tourists a fee of around $6 to go inside. Yet despite the similarities to their former role as fairground attractions, Ma Nun, the 46-year-old mother of Ma Da, has no time for the politically correct observers who claim that long-neck villages are modern-day freak shows.
Her attitude is bravely pragmatic. “I’ve heard it said many times that my people are like exhibits in a human zoo, but this makes me sad,” she says. “We are just doing our best to make a living. We are here because our homeland is very dangerous. We cannot return home until the fighting stops but I hope our stay is only temporary.”
Like her daughter, Ma Nun is also adorned with brass coils. A mature woman wears a maximum of 25 rings around her neck, signifying that she is an older and more respected member of the tribe. The total weight of Ma Nun’s coils is a daunting 13kg.
Sitting in her gift shop surrounded by mini-replicas of long-necked women like herself, Ma Nun admits that life in exile is tough. “It is very difficult for us here because we are refugees. We are not allowed to leave the confines of the village, or to farm the land and grow our own rice. I miss being at home and having all my friends and family around me very much.”
One tiny compensation can be found in the fact that Ma Nun has saved enough money from her gift shop earnings to buy a small black and white television set – a luxury she says she could never have afforded in Myanmar.
The TV sits in the corner of her wooden and bamboo hut and is powered by a car battery. A crude aerial pierces the teak-leaf roof.
Ma Nun proudly switches the set on and flicks through the snow-blurred channels to locate one with reception. She finds a station showing an NBA indoor stadium basketball game somewhere in California. She is a TV addict, she says, and watches anything and everything: Thai soaps, movies, sport, you name it.
Shrewdly, she charges other members of the village a pay-per-view fee of five baht each (12 US cents), which covers the cost of recharging the car battery once a week.
Ma Da also likes watching her mother’s television. “It helps me to form a connection between the tourists who visit here and the world they come from,” she says thoughtfully.
In contrast to the early days when she fled from the camera-touting visitors, she now strikes up conversations with them whenever she can. “I like to practice my English and Spanish, and to learn about their countries.”
When one tourist bus pulls up in Nai Soi today, a woman from Madrid can’t believe her ears when she hears Ma Da speaking in Spanish. “My God, she is almost fluent,” the woman shrieks.
It’s a palpable irony that Ma Da’s smiling postcard image is mailed all over the world, while she remains a refugee – unable to escape the tiny border village of Nai Soi.
But she bears her predicament with the same stoicism as her mother; upholding traditional Padaung culture by wearing the brass rings worn by generations of women before her.
She also strives to learn what she can from the tourists who come to “see” her because one day, she says hopefully, “I may be able to leave this place”.