Human Zoos: Years ago, in the early days of the Karen Conflict, the Kayan people fled Burma and headed to Thailand. They lived in refugee camps until the Thai government settled many of them in their own self-styled Kayan villages around the north of the country.
Mu Tae moved to one of these villages – called Huay Pu Keng – 25 years ago. Once she arrived, she and the rest of the Kayan people were free to live out their traditional way of life and adhere to their many age-old traditions.
The Kayan people had always been objects of fascination for travellers, as the women are known for wearing brass rings which give the appearance of an elongated neck.
Huay Pu Keng began to attract many tourists primarily for this reason, and the village economy began to thrive.
This, in turn, helped the refugees to live a more comfortable life as they made a good living hosting and selling their crafts to visitors from all over the world.
However, the Kayan people still faced some problems. They struggled to get Thai citizenship, which could affect their education and ability to travel within the country.
Then, the media began publishing inflammatory articles claiming that Huay Pu Keng was nothing but a “human zoo”, and insinuating that the Kayan people were forced to live there for the sake of tourism.
This led to many tourists boycotting the villages and encouraging others not to visit, without understanding the true extent of the issue or ever speaking to Kayan people.
Consequently, the Kayan people’s main source of income drastically decreased, leaving these refugees in a worse situation.
As Mu Tae explains in my new short film – Kayan Rings, which you can watch in full above – the people of Huay Pu Keng would actually like people to come and visit them.
They want to share their Kayan culture with visitors in a meaningful way, as a cross-cultural exchange with a sincere experience of life in Huay Pu Keng.
It’s important to not objectify these people, especially the women who wear the neck rings – but simply ignoring them is not the answer. It’s why I believe that, with this ‘ethical boycott’, nobody wins.