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Thailand tourism: Would you visit a "human zoo"?

Tourists in Thailand pay cash to meet exotic-looking war refugees.

Thailand Tourism Burma Refugee
Mae Po, a 48-year-old Kayan tribeswoman and Burmese conflict refugee, displays a photo of a relative who has now resettled in the U.S. Human rights groups say tourism operators guiding visitors to see "long-neck villages" are exploiting the tribe. Mae Po insists the exposure has helped family members start new lives abroad. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

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.”