MAE HONG SON, Thailand — When war became unbearable in Mu Dti’s remote Burmese village, she fled. For four days, she scrambled along mountain switchbacks, leaving sectarian conflict behind for the safety of a Thai refugee camp.
But Mu Dti, 15, arrived with a dubious advantage over the thousands of other Burmese refugees who routinely trudge across the Thai-Burma border. She is so exotic looking that tourists will pay cash to meet her.
Mu Dti’s neck appears supernaturally long, the result of metallic rings looped around her neck since she was six. Per customs expected of women in her tribe, the Kayan, the brass has weighed down and contorted her clavicle. The effect is extraordinary: Her head appears disembodied atop a tall, shimmering pedestal.
“The people ask, ‘Does it hurt? Is it heavy?’” said Mu Dti in Thai, a language picked up in the camp. She speaks almost no English but, when fair-skinned foreigners approach her, Mu Dti introduces herself as Mary. “I say, ‘No, I’m used to my rings.’”
The morality of paying to mingle with war refugees is slippery enough. But consider also that Mu Dti’s new “village,” despite its dirt paths, bamboo huts and loose roosters, is something of a fabrication.
Created by Thai business interests, who charge an $8.50 entrance fee for foreign guests, the settlement is essentially a live-in gift shop.
Of the roughly 120 inhabitants of her camp, Huay Pukeng, more than 30 are females laden with neck rings. They are required to await tourists from morning to dusk and scratch out a living selling trinkets, T-shirts and photo-ops.
Travel agents call it “long-neck tourism.” Human rights watchdogs, including the United Nations refugee commission, prefer the phrase “human zoo.”
“As far as we can tell, this happened kind of organically. Someone saw the business potential in this hill tribe and started managing them,” said Visanu Arunbamrungvong, the state-run Tourism Authority of Thailand’s director in Mae Hong Son province on the Thai-Burma border.
As refugees, the Kayan are forbidden from leaving the province in which they’re registered. They can, however, acquire work permits, which are coveted among Burmese refugees. All receive an allowance of food and toiletries while women wearing brass rings pocket an additional $50 a month.
But revenue from $8.50 entrance fee, which can easily generate $300 per village in a day, is not directly dispersed to the hundred or so Kayan that inhabit each village.
“This fee supports their daily needs, such as food [rice and curry], medical treatment, children’s education, development of their village and other extra needs,” according to an official statement from the village owners’ consortium. The villagers, however, can keep profits from handicrafts peddled by tribeswomen.
Though some travelers squirm at this arrangement, plenty don’t. Van loads of curious foreigners arrive each day to tour these commercialized refugee camps.
In Mae Hong Son, the Thai province where the Kayan first fled in 1984, three separate “long-neck” villages are situated within a short drive from hotels. Several more villages are located in Chiang Mai, a jungle-trekking destination and major stop on the foreign tourist circuit.
One Thai entrepreneur even created a “long-neck” tourist village outside Pattaya, a tawdry beach city best known for its red-light nightlife.
“We’re told to only direct people to these camps if they ask directly,” Visanu said. About 10 years ago, he said, a flood of complaints from inside and outside Thailand led the tourist authority to strip images of the Kayan from its promotional materials.
Most of the domestic criticism, he said, focused on the perceived self-inflicted cruelty of wearing heavy rings. The neck rings can weigh up to 25 pounds. “Society determined it was wrong,” Visanu said, “and we can’t be seen as promoting cruelty. We can only direct people there if they come in and ask.”
According to an account published by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, the first “long-neck” tourist stop was imagined in 1985 by a high-ranking government official in Mae Hong Son province.
Hundreds of Kayan had just fled intensified raids led by Burma’s army, notorious for its decades-long suppression of the country’s ethnic minorities. Thailand, which has long absorbed its neighboring countries’ conflict refugees, granted the Kayan temporary stay and “conflict refugee” status.
But the provincial official also “saw that the Kayan women, with their golden neck rings, had outstanding traits that could attract tourism interest,” according to the culture ministry account. Officials negotiated with the Kayan leaders and chose to locate a “long-neck cultural village at the river’s edge for tourists’ convenience.”
Mae Po, 48, was among the first wave of Kayan refugees fleeing into Thailand. Though marked as a “long-neck village” on tourist maps, her settlement’s official title is the “Baan Mai Nai Soi Section 4 Temporary Shelter Area.”
“Some days I make $3 from selling things to tourists,” she said in broken Thai. “Some days I make nothing.”
Though media reports portray her tribe as exploited, Mae Po contends her family has benefitted from fleeing into Thailand. She does not miss the life she left behind in Burma. And Mae Po proudly shows off a snapshot of relatives who recently secured asylum in the United States.
“They live ...” she began, her brow tightening in concentration, “in Ee-Oh-Ah.”
“I think that’s it, Iowa,” she said. “The older ones can’t speak the foreigner language, but the younger ones can. They work in a chicken-killing factory.”
The camps, though poor, are not without modern frills such as mobile phones, TV satellites and pirated video discs. Across from Mae Po’s wooden hut, a gaggle of young Kayan sat in the dirt. Their eyes were glued to a portable video disc player playing Step Up 2: The Streets. “It’s the dancing teenager movie,” one boy explained.
Mu Dti, who lives in a much more touristed village, draws an even sharper contrast between life in Thailand and Burma. “It’s pleasant here. Burma is horrible,” she said. “In Burma, the soldiers can catch you. Rape you.”
A male villager, 27-year-old La Dta, chimed in to denigrate the Burmese army. “There’s always some big guy coming into your town. If you don’t pay up, he says, ‘Do this, carry that, clean this.’ There is no law.”
Still, some argue that the Kayan’s tourism value, combined with their limited rights, leaves them far too vulnerable.
In 2008, the U.N. refugee agency accused Thai authorities of barring Kayan women from resettling in New Zealand to protect Thailand’s tourism interests. The Thai government denied the allegations and the refugees are now resettled.
In the same year, 11 Kayan briefly went missing, stirring allegations that they were illegally trafficked to a fly-by-night tourist village in Chiang Mai. The group was later returned to their home settlement near the Thai-Burma border.
Savvy Western tourists are often aware of the negative attention swirling around “long-neck” camps, said Melissa Ah-Sing. Her company, Thailand Hill Tribe Holidays, caters to the more “culturally curious traveler,” she said.
“By the time people come to us, a lot of them have already decided that the long-neck villages are a human zoo,” Ah-Sing said. Her operation typically leads small groups to villages settled authentically by ethnic minorities native to Thailand.
Ah-Sing says she doesn’t ask tourists to take a hard ethical stance on visiting Kayan refugee camps. She does, however, offer guests enough information to make an educated decision.
“They’re going to be there a long while yet. So if you go to the ‘long-neck’ tourist villages, we strongly advise visitors to buy handicrafts from the village. They get full returns from that,” Ah-Sing said.
“The entrance fee?” she said. “We don’t know how much gets lost along the way with the village owner.”