Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
When visiting Thailand, many travelers think a trip to the Chiang Rai Mai Hill Tribes is a bucket list must, and Thai travel agencies in particular are eager to show off the so-called long-neck villages. Visiting gives you an opportunity to take photos with and of the tribespeople, wander around their village, and buy inexpensive handmade gifts and souvenirs. It sounds fine and not creepy at all, until you stop and wonder if the inhabitants of this real-life Westworld actually want foreign tourists to be treating their reality like some sort of cultural theme park. After all, considering these are real humans and not robots with dubious consciousness and questionable free will, it makes the whole thing much more disturbing than the latest shocking HBO drama.
The villages’ inhabitants are the Kayan, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority from Myanmar with a unique cultural tradition in which women wear necklaces of coiled brass rings that appear to lengthen their necks. The Kayan arrived en masse in Thailand in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as a decades-long civil war in neighboring Myanmar finally forced them to flee their homes. The most important thing to know about these Kayan is that they’re refugees who have been granted temporary asylum in Thailand.
Exploiting the Kayans’ lack of citizenship, Thai operators forbid them from settling outside the tourist villages in which they work and withhold modern conveniences like roads, electricity, education, and health care under the guise of protecting their cultural identity. They give the communities welcoming names, calling them cultural preservation centers and “Hilltop Villages.”
Thus some tourists feel just fine visiting under the façade of anthropology. The tribespeople are expected to appease their guests by sharing stories, making and selling crafts, and living a Westworldian superficial reality for entertainment. Visiting the village also offers a chance to gawk at the Kayan women, who adorn their necks with brass coils giving the illusion of a disembodied head floating atop a lowered clavicle.
To many non-Kayan, it seems a bizarre custom—according to mythology the heavy necklaces prevent tigers from biting them, but a more accepted reason among Western anthropologists is that the ultra-long neck is a symbol of wealth and beauty, and will therefore attract a better husband. Girls start with a few rings at age 5 and add more as time goes on, wearing them around the clock. While some women prefer to uphold their tradition, others would like to remove the rings, but feel doing so would mean giving up their only viable source of income in their tourist village.
In an article published on a website about the village of Huay Pu Keng, one of those younger women, Zember, wrote about her desire to go to New Zealand and being “fed up of smiling for the tourists” who laugh at her culture, talk as if the villagers can’t understand them, and all ask the same questions. It’s monotonous and boring, but Zember claimed that due to her refugee status it was very difficult for her to leave the 1-mile radius around her village. “The people who control us say if the people see us in the town, they won’t pay to see us (in the village),” Zember said in an interview.
In 2005, a large group of Kayans living in Thailand applied for and were accepted to third countries as refugees, but Thai authorities said that their village was no longer a part of the refugee camp, and therefore they did not qualify for refugee status in another country. Zember, along with her neighbors and family, worked with the UNHCR resettlement program and was eventually resettled in New Zealand, but many Kayan refugees remain in the villages.
One blog describes visiting the villages as a “real life National Geographic Magazine,” and says that it will “only feel like a human zoo if you make it feel like one.” But for the most part, there is a growing consensus that spending money to visit the Kayan villages is showing support for Thailand’s cultural imprisonment of the Kayan people. While older members of the village may feel safer in their Thai live-in gift shops than their civil war-scarred home country, younger residents are not so enthusiastic. Tourists to the village are often disappointed that the Kayan appear listless and bored, hinting that they don’t love living their life on display. Cristianna Saldanha, a freelance photographer who recently visited the Kayan village, reported, “The village looked more like a market than a home. I felt guilty because they use [the Kayan] as a cultural experience, but it was more of a human zoo.” She remembers thinking that “they are stuck there, and people pay to visit them. They don’t pay them, but they pay the tour guides. I’m not sure how that works, but it feels wrong.”
Most American or foreign-run companies do not offer trips to the Chiang Rai Mai Hill Tribes, and in most cases, you have to book through a local agency when you’re already in the area. Ironically, the difficulty of pre-arranging such a trip may lead you to believe it’s a truly authentic cultural encounter.
The Kayan villages may be the most egregious example, but tourist traps that exploit impoverished minority cultures exist around the world —like slum tours in Mumbai and Favela tours in Rio—often tacitly sanctioned by the government of the country in question. And they may not look so different from cultural preservation sites that actually benefit their subjects. This is why it’s so important to do your homework before booking such a trip by researching the history of the cities and people you’ll encounter, and considering where you’re going, who you’re visiting, what you’ll take away, and what you’ll leave behind. We have to ask ourselves whether the people we hope to visit are trapped as cultural entertainment and if we are, in fact, participating in a real-life dystopia.