For advocates of refugees and some tourists, Thailand’s “long-neck” women – famous for the traditional gold rings they wear around their necks – are victims trapped in a “human zoo”.
But not all these ladies see themselves that way. Some are very happy to see tourists and welcome the chance to boost their income by selling goods and meeting people from other parts of the world.
Thailand has at least half a dozen villages or tourist sites where these women, known as Kayan/Karenni or Padaung – depending on where they are from (the latter from Shan State) – can be seen.
Most are in the north, near refugee camps and the border at Mae Hong Son or Chiang Rai. But others can be found near Chiang Mai, Pattaya – and of course, in their homeland Myanmar.
In 2008, representatives from the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, voiced concerned that some long-neck women from Karenni state were being denied the chance to resettle abroad by the Thai government – possibly because they were a valuable asset for the local tourism industry.
The UNHCR said about 20 Kayan had been denied exit visas to resettle in Finland and New Zealand for about two years, while tens of thousands of others were allowed to go and begin new lives overseas.
But not all Kayan/Karenni ladies in “long-neck” villages in northern Thailand wanted to get out. Others, who have stayed behind, say they want people to visit them.
Mu Tae moved to Huay Pu Keng, one of three villages in Mae Hong Son in Thailand’s far northwest, about 25 years ago. As seen in the video below, she and other Kayan people are free to live their traditional way of life and adhere to many age-old traditions – without the risk of abuse by the notorious Myanmar army.
Marko Randelovic, a filmmaker from England, says the Kayan have always been the object of fascination for travelers because of the brass neck rings which make it look like the women have an elongated neck.
“Over the years Huay Pu Keng attracted many tourists primarily for this reason and the village economy began to thrive. This, in turn, helped the refugees to live a more comfortable life as they made a good living hosting visitors and selling their crafts to people from all over the world,” he said.
However, the Kayan/Karenni have been unable to get Thai citizenship and that hinders education opportunities for their children, plus their ability to travel freely outside the province.
Articles suggesting that sites such as Huay Pu Keng were “human zoos” caused many tourists to boycott the villages “without understanding the true extent of the issue or ever speaking to Kayan people”, Randelovic said. Such ethical boycotts were wrong, he argued.
“The Kayan people’s main source income drastically decreased, leaving these refugees in a worse situation.
“As Mu Tae explains, the people of Huay Pu Keng would like people to come and visit them … they want to share their Kayan culture with visitors in a meaningful way, a cross-cultural exchange with a sincere experience of life in Huay Pu Keng.”
“Simply ignoring these women is not the answer to this,” he said.
Huay Pu Keng is about half an hour’s drive from Mae Hong Son and it is relatively cheap if visitors want to stay there, Randelovic said.