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