On a Tuesday afternoon Sheena and I boarded Nacho and set off in search of a human zoo. “A human zoo,” you say? It must be so, for it says it right here in our guidebook.
“The villages are often derided as human zoos, and there are certainly elements of this, but we find them more like bizarre rural markets, with the women earning much of their money by selling tacky souvenirs and drinks.”
The villages that the guidebook refers to are Kayan Burmese refugee camps in the hills outside of Mae Hong Son, just a few kilometers away from Burma on the Thailand side. The Kayan people are known to tourists as “longneck tribes”, because the women have unusually long necks adorned with stacked brass rings.
The women’s necks aren’t actually “stretched” as most people believe. Rather, by adding rings over time their collarbones and upper ribs begin to tilt downward, giving the illusion of a longer neck – a sign of beauty and tribal identity in Kayan culture. And in a quickly modernizing Asia where Abercrombie & Fitch has largely replaced tribal sarongs, it’s amazing that such customs still exist. But not everyone seems to appreciate this fact. Still, our guidebook finds the villages pitiable.
“The Kayan we’ve talked to claim to be happy with their current situation, but the stateless position they share with all Burmese refugees is nothing to be envied.” – Our guidebook
“You guys went to a longneck village? No…way. I would NE-VER go to one of those places. The women are like, forced to stand around like animals selling, like, drinks and tacky souvenirs and stuff. And they force little girls to put these rings around their necks like slaves instead of going to school. I heard they’re, like, human zoos.”
There is a distinct subset of backpackers out there who revere travel guidebooks as holy testaments. If it’s not in the book, then it doesn’t exist. And if it is in there, then it must be true.
“Hi, I’m Tyler. Oh nice to meet you Brad, and what was it? Sheila? I’ve been backpacking around for like eight weeks. I trained as an elephant mahout when I was in Thailand and I kayaked down the Mekong and only ate at floating markets. Did I mention I’m a trained elephant mahout? You’re from where? I don’t believe in homes, and neither does my yoga guru. I may never go back to the States. Did I mention I live on only $1.85 per day? Oh, by the way, do you have anything I can eat? What, you went to a longneck village? I would never go to one. I basically think of them as human zoos.”
Since going to the Kayan village of Ban Huai Seau Tao, we’ve told about six people about it. And six times we’ve heard: “Longneck village? Those places are human zoos.”
Sorry, but did anyone ever stop and consider the possibility of cultivating an original thought based on real experience, uninfluenced by any all-knowing guidebook overlord? If I hear one more person say…
From Mae Hong Son we drove along a stream through a densely wooded forest. After the third or fourth stream crossing we saw a couple of elephants leashed to trees in the shade to graze and drink from the stream; elephants in this remote corner of Thailand are still used as field animals to haul loads or pull plows, much in the same way that water buffalo or cows are used elsewhere. Finally we arrived at the Kayan village and parked just outside. Before being allowed to enter on foot we were asked to pay a few dollars each to support the village – another thing that gets backpackers all riled up. (“It’s a human zoo!”)
There are several Burmese refugee camps along the border, and most of them deliver a relatively low standard of living. By restoring their dying cultural customs, the Kayan have given rise to a means of generating their own revenue, and by doing so, have improved their standard of living relative to the other camps, reducing their reliance on outside aid.
We paid up and walked into the village. After crossing a stream on a small bridge we came to the main thoroughfare in town, a small walking path between thatched huts. The village was very small, and there were a couple dozen shops set up on the path, each tended by one or two Kayan women. More than half of the women wore traditional brass rings around their necks, and all of them wore their tribe’s traditional vibrant sarongs, woven tops, and colorful scarves.
The most popular items for sale were hand woven sarongs and scarves. Many of the women sat on wooden benches inside of their huts weaving on looms stretched between their waists and wooden posts. Each sarong takes several days to complete, and the prices were surprisingly fair – only a few dollars each. Four or five other tourists meandered around the shops, giving the place the feel of, gosh, what would I call it? Crowded strip mall? An international airport? No, that’s not right. Oh, a zoo! Of course! A human zoo!
We left the main walkway and headed up the hill to where Italian missionaries had long ago built a catholic church in an effort to save these villagers from their sinful, tribal ways. Based on the condition of the church and the traditional feel of the village, it would appear as though the mission had failed. But the numbers say otherwise. Two thirds of Kayan villagers have given up their spirituality and now identify as Roman Catholics.
The Burmese government also made attempts to quell Kayan traditions in order to look more modern by encouraging the villagers to stop wearing their traditional neck coils, and many villagers obliged. More young Kayan removed their coils to fit in with modern society after fleeing to Thailand. The odds are stacked against the Kayan and their customs, but for now it’s pleasing to see the old traditions kicking and struggling to stay afloat in a quickly modernizing world.
Before leaving the village we bought a couple of cold drinks and enjoyed them in the shade of a tamarind tree. Sitting there with a cold drink in hand, the sun’s intense rays filtered by the fair leaves of the tamarind, I thought I felt something. What is this feeling, I wondered. I retrieved our guidebook from my backpack and consulted the index to see what it was, but I found no mention of tamarind trees or cold drinks. I placed the book back in my pack and zipped it up. Must have been nothing, I figured.