When you travel in foreign countries you are often faced with questions different than at home. Sometimes they are easy "Which local beer is best to wash down this spicy curry?". Sometimes they don't seem to have a firm answer. Which is what I faced last week when given the opportunity to visit a Kayan Village in Northern Thailand.
The Kayan people originate from a tribe in Myanmar (Burma). They are often referred to as the Long Neck Tribe because of the tradition of placing brass coils on the women's necks.
The Kayan are refugees in Thailand. They crossed the boarder from Myanmar during a time of civil war and persecution from the military government in the 1990's. As with many native tribes in Myanmar, who lived peaceful rural lives, their story since the military government take over of their country is one of suffering and persecution.
As refugees they have no status in Thailand or ability to work legally. They have settled in 3 villages in Northern Thailand. One village in particular has been developed into a tourist site. The women wear their traditional dress and neck coils, they sell souvenirs and pose for pictures with tourists.
This is where the dilemma question comes in. Some people are of the opinion that the Kayan running a tourist site, charging tourists admission to visit their village and take pictures of the people in traditional dress, has created what is referred to as a 'human zoo'. While I see their point, I don't think it is that simple.
The bigger picture is that these people have no way to make a living, they have no status to get a job. Is creating this tourist site exploiting their culture, or is it using the culture to create a living?
We spent several hours in the village. We spoke to many of the women. One woman in particular had some English skills so we could ask her questions. Her daughter at 7 years has chosen not to wear the neck coils which is, she says, acceptable.
All of the women were kind and smiling and appeared genuine in the efforts to communicate and show you pieces of their culture.
I know that, as a tourist, I can not possibly begin to understand the nuances of their lives. For example, how much of the admission fee goes to the people? But I can say that although not ideal, the village and the people obviously were creating some income for themselves. The houses were simple and rural, but adequate, people were eating usual rural Thailand meals and many of the young people had cell phones. There was a young girl of about 5 playing on a tablet.
I would expect that there are days when the women feel tired of posing for photos; but I wonder if they treat it as a job and do the best they can with what they have. Although we spent several hours speaking to the women and asking genuine questions about their culture and lives, many groups of tourists came and went very quickly, snapping a few photos with little interest in the culture other than to check one more item off their tour list. Sadly this attitude is not unique to this location. The been-there-done-that-got-the-tshirt-tour is unfortunately all too common.
We left the village with a hand-woven scarf as a souvenir, several questions in our minds, and a prayer for the Kayan people that the future for them is better than the recent past.