Indigenous Tourism in Thailand


Since 1986, tourism has replaced rice industry to become the largest foreign currency earner in Thailand. Indigenous tourism greatly contributes to success of Thai tourism.[1] Because of their unique culture and costumes, Hill Tribes people, the official name of indigenous people in Thailand, fascinate people around the world to explore, and among Hill Tribes, Paduang women who famous for their “long necks” especially do.

Identified as indigenous people by Thai government, “Hill Tribes” includes many different ethnic groups such as The Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, and Mien Peoples.[2] Historically, Hill Tribes people located widely in different areas such as China, Vietnam, and Burma in southeastern Asia. During the latter half of the 19th century, many people among these groups moved to northern Thailand, especially western border with Burma.[3] 

As a subgroup of Karan people among Hill Tribes, Paduang women are well known for their neck decorations. (See Figure 3) Traditionally, as young as five years old, Paduang girls will start to wear spirals of brass around their necks, an act that make their neck appear to be longer than those of ordinary people. Labeled as “Giraffe women” because of their neck rings, Paduang women have long fascinated people around the world since Burma become colony of Britain.[4]

In order to analyze what role tourism plays in Hill Tribe culture, Paduang women are taken as a model in this article to analyze the question. By comparing the past with the present of Paduang women, this blog focuses on public awareness of Paduang women brought by tourism, effectiveness of culture exchange during Paduang tours, influence of tourism on life style of Paduang women, and impact of tourism on Paduang women’ neck rings custom.

Public awareness of Paduang women brought by tourism:

According to a research done by Tribal Research Institute, there were over 33,000 indigenous households and approximately 190,000 indigenous people in Chiang Mai Province of Thailand in 2002. These data confirmed Chiang Mai as a province with the largest population of Hill Tribe people, among which Karan people (broader group of Paduang people) outnumber than any other ethnic groups.[5] Taking advantage the population, Chiang Mai-based travel companies offer a huge amount of tribal tours, with advertisements.[6]

Statistics from Chiang Mai University notes that during 1992, there were already 1,873,297 visitors to Chiang Mai, including 789,453 foreign visitors and 1,083,844 domestic visitors.[7] Statistics from Tourism Authority of Thailand shows that during 2006, foreign visitors and domestic visitors to Chiang Mai respectively increased to 3,539,772 and 2,050,554 people, and after 14 years the total number of visitors tripled.[8]

Compared two set of data above, one can see a trend that a rapidly increasing number of tourists travel to Chiang Mai. Even dated back to 1930, former Scottish colonial administer James George Scott noted that “[the] get-up of the women that makes the Padaung the best-known of all the tribes,”[9] so in terms of its popularity, it is reasonable to believe that these tours play a crucial role in attracting people to go to Chiang Mai. Thanks to the accessibility to indigenous people offered by Thai tourism, along with its enormous effort to advertise, more and more people all around the world now get aware of indigenous people, contributing to its growing fame.

Effectiveness of culture exchange during Paduang tours:

Because of the eager of tourists to see these women, a special tour for Paduang women first came into shape in 1985. Three Paduang women were brought to a base on the board of Burma and Thailand, and travel agencies of Chiang Mai lead a considerable amount of tourists to take boats across Pai River to see these women on the base. However, these Paduang women were only taken as “model” for photograph, with constantly changing their poses, and one can hardly spot that “culture exchange” between tourists and Paduang women ever happened.[10] After Burma 1987 war, some Paduang women were brought to Mae Hong Son Resort in Thailand. Apart from being taken as “model”, they were forced to play guitar, an instrument almost irrelevant at all to their culture, in order to please tourists.[11]

Recently, according to Suzanne Nam, a master of journalism from Columbia University, Paduang tours offered by travel agencies can hardly lead tourists to visit “authentic” Paduang people.[12] Som Sak Seta, a guide for indigenous tour in Thailand, reveals that “Some Thai made a fake village in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and stole some Karen from [Thai-Burma border] to live there,”[13] These villages are intentionally designed for tourism rather than those which Paduang women originally resided. (See Figure 5) During these visits, not only tourists have to pay a high entrance fee, usually more than 1000 baht, but also are asked to purchase souvenirs.[14]

Figure 5 - A Paduang village for tourism (

Based on the comparison, one can see that even in the beginning, interactions between tourists and Paduang women are very rare. What is worse, driven by financial interests, now many travel operators create fake Paduang villages, an act just contradictory to culture exchange. Degenerating from its non-cultural way to anti-cultural way, Paduang tourism indeed decreases effectiveness of culture exchange.

Influence of tourism on life style of Paduang women:

As one ethnic group among hill tribe people, Paduang people share several common features with other groups of hill tribe people. For one thing, as the name Hill Tribe implies, traditionally Paduang women in Thailand lived in mountains located in northern part of the country. For another thing, they usually earn their living by farming and hunting.[15] As for hunting, it is widely believed that the reason why Paduang women wear metal neck rings at the beginning was to prevent wild animals from biting them.[16]

Now, as mentioned above, artificial villages in non-mountain areas prevail. What is more, some travel operators even take Paduang women from northern parts to southern parts of the country, in order to bring tourists convenience to see Paduang women near southern big cities such as Bangkok and Pattaya. For example, in Na Jomtien, a town several kilometers far away from south Pattaya, a corporation called Chokechai Tour Company has recently built a replicate village for Paduang women.[17] Plus, now their lives rely on tourism. (See Figure 6) After visiting a tour village, The New York Times journalist Joyce Hor-Chung Lau wrote that “All of whom were somehow involved either in posing for photos in rainbow-hued traditional costumes, or weaving lovely, intricate cotton works that they sold to visitors.”[18]

Figure 6 - A Paduang women selling souvenirs (

After comparing live styles of Paduang people in different time periods, one can easily find out the changes. From north to south, from mountains to tour villages, tourism drove Paduang people to leave their original homes. Also, they no longer farmed and hunted. Since both the new living places and the earning ways are directly related to tourism, it is not difficult to conclude that these living style changes are caused by tourism.

Impact of tourism on Paduang women’ neck rings custom:

Traditionally, “only Paduang girls who were born on a Wednesday of a full moon wore the brass coils,” Maya Sabatello, a doctor of political science from University of Southern California, wrote. As for how to wear neck rings, the first ring would be added Paduang girls’ necks when they were five years old. At the age of their twenty, grown-up Paduang girls would wear their final neck rings. The whole process took approximately 15 years to finish.[19]

However, at the present time, it is reported that almost all Paduang girls who living in tour villages are required to wear the brass coils.[20] A Paduang girl called Zember, who has removed her neck rings, says that she wants a normal life. However, the owners of village stopped giving her money because of her removal.[21] In addition, as young as two years old, many Paduang now women start to wear the first rings of neck rather than traditionally at the age of 5. (See Figure 7) They finish the whole practice 5 years earlier than they should do, from originally at the age of 20 to now at the age of 15.[22]

The mandate for all Paduang girls to wear brass coils and the reduction of the time to finish the practice has changed the most distinguished custom of “Giraffe Women”. It is believed that these two changed are caused by tourism, for these two changes contribute to attracting more tourists, by turning most Paduang women into those who exactly fit tourists’ appetite.



Although tourism helps to broaden people’s awareness of Paduang people, culture exchange between tourists and Paduang people is not effective. Plus, development of Paduang tours is at price of destroying Paduang culture in terms of living styles and ways of wearing neck rings. Based on the case of Paduang people, as Thai tourism rapidly develop, Thai government should perform its duty of balancing two sides of indigenous tourism, in order to keep preserve Hill Tribes culture as it was. For one thing, it should enact laws that regulate indigenous tourism, in order to keep it in a sustainable way. For another, it should reinforce its supervision functions, in order to ensure travel companies to follow the rules.


Word Count:


[1] Taksina Nimmonratana, “Impact of Tourism on a Local Community: A Case Study of Chiang Mai,” in Tourism in Southeast Asia, ed. K. S. Chon (New York, London, and Oxford: The Haworth Hospitality Press, 2000), 66

[2] Cultural survival, “Thailand country Profile”, accessed 18 March 2012

[3] Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania, s. vv. “Hill Tribes of Thailand,” 279

[4] Edith T. Mirante, “Hostages to Tourism,” Breaking Out of the Tourism Trap Part 1, 14.1 (Spring 1990)

[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, CASE STUDY ON EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES FOR HILL TRIBES IN NORTHERN THAILAND (Bangkok: RAP Publication, 2002)

[6] Suzanne Nam, “Thailand’s Hill Tribes” (2011), accessed 18 March 2012

[7] Nimmonratana, 71

[8] Tourism Authority in Thailand, “Internal Tourism in Chiang Mai” (2006), accessed 18 March 2012

[9] Mirante

[10] Mirante

[11] Mirante

[12] Nam

[13] Antonio Graceff, “Shacked by the Neck Dispute: The Long Neck Karen and the Backpacker.” The Ambassador July 2010,, accessed 18 March 2012

[14] Graceff

[15] Hill Tribes of Thailand”

[16] Mirante

[17] Pattaya Daily News , “Tourists welcome Hill Tribe move from Chiang Mai to Na Jomtien” (20 May 2008), accessed 18 March 2012

[18] Joyce Hor-Chuang Lau, “A real Thai hill tribe village, or is it?” (24 May 2007), accessed 18 March 2012

[19] Maya Sabatello, Children’s Bioethics: The International Biopolitical Discourse on Harmful Traditional Practices and the Right of the Child to Cultural Identity (Leiden: BRILL, 2009), 86

[20] Sabatello, 86

[21] Graceff

[22] Sabatello, 86


2 Responses to Indigenous Tourism in Thailand

  1. Pingback: Tourism in Thailand | Tourism in Thailand

  2. 2012alex says:

    Your introduction is very well written. You provide important background information, explain terms, move from the broad to your narrow topic and clearly state a strong thesis. You also correctly refer to images and accurately footnote information. Well done!

    The body of your essay includes descriptive subtitles that effectively refer to your controlling ideas. You use statistics as evidence and cite the information correctly. You also integrate quotes into your text well, accurately punctuating and referencing the information. Overall, you have used evidence to support your arguments very effectively. The information you do provide is relevant and interesting. Language is well paraphrased.

    Your conclusion is well written and it summarises your main points as well as leaving the reader with final thoughts in the form of potential solutions to the problem.

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