A few weeks ago, I was reading through my student literature on sustainable tourism, and found a piece about the Karen hill tribes in north western Thailand on the Burma border, and what negative impact tourism has on their women.
The Burmese civil war has been raging off-and-on for a period of nearly fifty years. It has been estimated that as many as two million refugees, many of the tribal peoples, have fled over the border into neighboring Thailand. The Long Neck Karen tribe, so called because their women wear multiple neck rings, which elongate the neck, to several times normal size, have found refuge in artificial, tourist villages, where visitors, both Thai and foreign, pay a fee to visit to see the unusual looking people.
However it is only women in a sub-group of Karen, known as the Padaung, who wear the brass rings. Several Padaung villages that serve as a tourist attraction for thousands of visitors from around the globe, have been constructed in the Mae Hong Song province of Northern Thailand. For as little as 250 baht, tourists can visit one of these long neck tribes. It might not sound so bad, and you might wonder why it is bad for the woman in the Karen hill tribes. Just the fact that tourist primarily visit the tribes is only to see the women with their long necks rather than to learn and take part of a hill tribe culture. In fact many label the Karen hill tribe villages as human zoo’s, and with all right it seems. But there is more to it.
The Karen hill tribe villages are big attractions for tourist in Thailand and in most trekking tours available in the Chiang Mai area a visit to one a Karen hill tribe village is included. In 2008 about 20 Karen women were refused by Thai authorities to leave the country, despite firm offers by the UN Refugee Agency to resettle them in Finland and New Zeeland. At the same time Thai authorities allowed some 20 000 other Burmese refugees to move to a third country. The suspicion is that the long-neck women are being kept in Thailand because of the central role they play in the local tourism industry. Several Human Rights organizations have been trying to get tourists to boycott visiting Karen hill tribes and at some Karen woman are removing their neck-rings to get a chance to reintegrate in society and get a new chance in life .