People as tourist magnets By Christiane Oelrich

The residents of the village of long-necked women in northern Thailand say they feel like prisoners in a human zoo. The government says that is absurd.

Kayan Tayar, Mae Hong Son (dpa) - When Mu La talks, her voice sounds muffled because of the 27 heavy brass rings that the 44-year-old wears around her neck.

But the message from the refugee from Burma - who lives in northern Mae Hong Son province in a mock village purpose-built for tourists - is crystal-clear: "We want to leave here, never mind where to, only away from here. We feel like prisoners."

Visitors call the village a "human zoo," but Thailand's government rejects the term as "absurd."

Mu La is a member of an ethnic group whose women wear brass rings around their necks as status symbols. For them, the longer the neck, the more beautiful the woman.

Their rings can weigh 10 kilogrammes or more, and over the years, the weight pushes down the collar bones and shoulders, making necks appear longer and giving the women their nicknames of "long-necked" or "giraffe" women.

They are part of an ethnic group called the Padung in Thailand, but they reject that term as denigrating and call themselves Kayan and their village Kayan Tayar.

An Italian tourist couple has paid an entrance fee of 250 baht ($8) each to visit Kayan Tayar, which lies at the end of an unpaved road north-west of the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son.

The young woman shoots photos while repeatedly muttering, "Incredible," and getting as close to her subjects as her lens permits.

The village's oldest female resident, Ma Le, 80, was undisturbed. She is used to such intrusions.

"Sometimes we receive three or four, sometimes up to 20 tour groups a day," says Mu La, sitting on her wooden hut's veranda and weaving a scarf.

The village's huts are built on stilts because the dirt track in front of them is regularly flooded in the wet season. There is no electricity.

"The tourists think we are primitive people," 23-year-old Zember says. "The guides say they don't want to see good roads or clean villages or anything modern, so we have to live like this to please the tourists."

When business is good and enough tour groups arrive, each of the 60 women wearing neck rings receives 1,500 baht a month from the village's Thai operators. The children and men get nothing at all, so the money has to support all 260 villagers.

During the off season, they get nothing, the villagers say. They rely heavily on donations from charities to survive.

Like most of her fellow villagers, Mu La fled her home country in the late 1980s to escape its brutal military regime.

"The soldiers came all the time," she says.

They forced the men to become porters on the front lines of the government's war against rebel armies and drove the women ahead of their ranks in case land mines were laid in their path.

She and many like her fled. Initially, she was sent to one of the many refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border.

But when Thai business people recognized the money-earning potential of the exotic-looking women, they suggested they move to three artificial villages near Mae Hong Son.

Some of the families aren't bothered that they have become "tourism magnets."

The village of Huay Sua Thao is populated mainly by economic migrants who were enticed to settle there to create a tourist attraction. Most of the villagers agree that their current lives are better than in Burma.

There also are people in the village of Huay Pu Keng who don't complain about their lot.

"We hope that more and more tourists will come," 52-year-old Mu Nan says.

She weaves shawls and sells souvenirs in front of her hut. She has worn her neck rings since she was a small child and says she has gotten used to tourists gawking.

She intends to sit it out until "better times arrive" and then return to Burma once peace returns, but Mu La in Kayan Tayar has given up hope after almost 20 years as a refugee.

In 2005, she applied with 20 other people from the three tourist villages for resettlement to New Zealand. The country accepted them and the United Nations agreed to cover the air fare, but her plan to start a new life was shattered when the Thai authorities refused to issue an exit visa.

"Those who don't live in the temporary shelters are not considered as refugees," says Tharit Charungvat, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry in Bangkok. To grant the exit visas "would be unfair to those in the camps who are waiting in line for resettlement," he says.

"Apart from that, they voluntarily went to live outside of their camps," he adds. "They are free and earn money."

But the term "free" leaves a bitter taste in the villagers' mouths.

If they are caught outside their villages, they are arrested, they say, because they are not permitted to seek jobs elsewhere.

Kayan Tayar's women are particularly upset. They think the Thai authorities might deny them exit visas so their country doesn't lose a lucrative tourist attraction.

Disillusioned and angry, some of them decided to protest by removing their neck rings. They say they hope this makes it easier to get exit visas.

One of them, Zember, recalls: "After I had learned English, I was shocked when I finally understood the tourists' comments. They said they were disgusted that we displayed ourselves for a little money like animals in a zoo."

That was never the case, she insists. She remembers that she once was proud of her neck rings and that she even wanted to wear more.

"I wanted to be a proud Kayan woman," she says.

Today, Zember looks like any other young woman. "I just want to lead a normal life," she says defiantly.

Only her sloping shoulders belie her past years of wearing the heavy rings.

Mu La, a mother of eight, also contemplates taking off her 27 rings, which give her the longest neck in the village.

"I am proud of our tradition," she says but concedes that she is willing to sacrifice for a ticket to freedom.

"If that is the only way for me to leave here, I will take them all off," she asserts.

Ma Lo, another young woman, is equally frustrated and fed up with living in the village. She took her rings off, too.

There is a picture postcard in circulation that shows her breastfeeding her baby. Nobody asked her permission to publish the photo.

"I was so ashamed when I saw the postcard for the first time, but I couldn't do anything against it," she says. "I don't want to be treated like an exhibit anymore. I want some respect."

Oelrich, C. (2008, April 28). People as tourist magnets. Bangkok Post.


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