One of the long-necked ladies on display
They seem to be a fixture of every package tour or day trip. We generally try to avoid tours that include stops at hill tribe villages. The idea of visiting people just to gawk at their 'strangeness' seems rude, to say the least.
Among the most 'popular' of the hill tribes are the Padaung, commonly referred to as the tribe of 'longnecked' women. Several villages of these people, part of the Karen refugees from Burma, are found in Northern Thailand, especially around Mae Hong Son.
A very happy granny from the 'long-earred' tribe
The women of the Padaung tribe wear brass coils around their neck. Contrary to what was once believed, the coils do not stretch out the neck, but rather they push the shoulders and rib cage downward. Girls will start wearing small coils around the age of six, and the size is increased as they grow older. The coils on adults typically weigh about five kilograms (11 pounds).
The ethics of whether or not to visit these people is up to you. On the one hand, tourism is one of the few ways that these people can earn a living. As refugees, they are not allowed to seek regular work in Thailand. Most of the women we have met seem to be proud of their heritage and feel no embarrassment about showing it off for the tourists.
On the other hand, tourism may be helping to perpetuate a form of female mutilation that would otherwise be dying out. Young girls may be pressured into performing the ritual just to earn money for the family.
If you decide to visit the Padaung, you'll need to join a day-trip tour from Mae Hong Son. The cost is around 1,000 to 1,500 Baht (25.59 USD to 38.39 USD). There are several small tour operators in Mae Hong Son. See our Tours & Day Trips page for contacts.
Commonly called the Maeo by Thais, the Hmong are the second largest hill tribe group in Thailand. They are most common around Chiang Mai, and a trip to the Maeo village at Doi Pui is a common extension of the trip to Doi Suthep.
The village at Doi Pui is now little more than a themed shopping mall with a little cultural tourism thrown in. When we first visited the village more than 15 years ago, you would spot young men walking down the dirt streets wearing the trademark short-waisted black jackets jingling with a breast full of coins sewn on them. You won't see them anymore, they've all been sold to the tourists (the jackets, not the young men).