In the recent post The exploited Long-neck women in SE Asia (I), I told about my long time interest in the women of the Kayan tribe from Burma. In particular I forwarded concerns from the field of Responsible/ Ethical tourism and Human Rights about the Kayan tribes’ involvement in the tourism industry due to their special tradition of decorating their necks with metal rings. I mentioned that I’m finally going to South East Asia, and that one of the purposes with the trip is to investigate this subject further.
Before embarking on such a trip, I’ve done some research online in order to get a better picture of the situation. Yet, I’ve not fully understood how big this tour product really is, how the tours are conducted, what guides communicate or how involved the Thai government is – despite of human rights organisations’ campaigns against it for years. However, as with other similar issues of concern in the tourism industry; I can only imagine that whatever impression I get through published articles, blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, the situation is a lot more complex than I’ll ever understand.
Still, as mentioned in the previous post; what´s clear is that there exists lots of information about the history of the Kayan people, including their origin, myths about their decoration custom, historical western fascination with them and key to my initial interest: Debates about the exploitation of them as tourist attractions in Thailand.
If the latter isn’t true, the question arises: What’s in it for them? Which clearly is the main reason why human rights organisations like Tourism Concern work on subjects like these.
Before discussing the ethics, lets go through some history.
The origin of the long-neck women is quite known even through tourism nowadays. The so called long-neck women are members of a tribe called Karen (by themselves pronounced as Kayan), out of which many fled from Burma to Thailand in the 1980s after having been one of many harshly oppressed ethnic minorities in the country. Soon after, there were built specific villages in the Chiang Mai region in Northern Thailand for – amongst other fleeing tribes– the Kayan people.
As most of the Kayan women stuck to the old custom of coiling rings around their necks, Thai authorities soon realised their value as tourist attractions, and built separate villages for them to where visitors could pay to come and see them with their own eyes and learn about their tradition.
According to a huge variety of sources the mythical stories and beliefs about why the women coil their necks with heavy metal rings then, seem to be presented and believed in numerous forms, but the three most common mythologies explain that:
- It’s done to prevent tigers from biting them
- It was originally done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders.
and the opposite of the latter:
- That an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery therefore, is said to be punished by removal of the rings.
As tempted as I am to rabble on about the ways so called “culture tours/ tourism” can develop, and why it often represents an issue of concern within the field of Responsible Tourism – it be visits to tribe people in African countries or the Inuits of Canada or the Samis up North in Norway – I’ll keep to four sentences:
- Culture tours/ tourism is B I G business, and it’s increasing in popularity every year as today’s travelers are increasingly keen to discover whatever they see as authentic in a destination.
- The very people of interest (when it comes to this tourism form) often represent historically marginalised groups of people due to their status as indigenous/ ethnic minorities.
- Due to the longtime oppression of the latter, they often struggle with poverty, stigmatisation and language barriers which make them easy to exploit in industries like tourism.
- Additionally and unfortunately, currently existing tribe people often live in areas with poor standards of human rights’ protection.
Back to the Kayan tribe, it’s important to have in mind that the international knowledge about its people – and especially its women’s customs – didn’t actually start with tourism in recent times. The truth is that the long-neck women first got internationally known through Western adventurers and anthropologists that “discovered them” and brought pictures back to Europe from Burma during the Colonial times.
Here’s an example I found when … yeah, googling.
According to content I find on the world wide web about their modern history (meaning from 1900), Kayan women were even taken to England in the 1930s for cultural-educational purposes, which reminds me of what I learned in school about a black man who was displayed in Oslo 150 years ago, and in University about miss Sarah Baartman, that was exhibited in London during the same era.
As for the Kayan women, they were invited to join theater plays (!).
And invited to drink tea the Brittish way.
Those were the Oh mighty colonial days, you may be thinking…
Today however, we tend to think that in terms of human values we’ve come much longer since the colonial racist 1930s… It would be seen as completely unacceptable to exhibit people less powerful in a Western country today, right? Besides, think about it: Today we’ve seen it all. One way or another, we know about all kinds of people and ethnic groups that live on the planet. It’s not like it used to be back then when traveling was seen as an extreme luxury even for most Westerners.
Instead, in the increasingly globalised world and with our increasing travel opportunities we are constantly given the chance to learn about real people with other traditions than ours – in their very own habitat. Wherever it is, we just travel there! Where there is a demand there will be a supply as it works strikingly well in an overly market oriented world. And it’s in this very reality that sightseeing the villages of the long-neck women has become a popular experience for travelers to tick of their lists.
One can start wondering when seeing the above pictures, whether that early display and fascination – and the fact that we even had pictures of them in school books in European countries throughout the 20th century – has fueled the whole concept of the Kayan women as tourist attractions in modern Thailand today? And others alike.
Truth is that for a long time, rather bizarre tour products in which indigenous people are the main attraction, have popped up around the globe replying to the demand among authenticity- seeking tourists. Not seldom are they marketed as beneficial to the attractions themselves, but honestly I’ve yet to see such a concept – developed in a bottom-up, trustworthy and sustainable manner – with my own eyes.
One crucial question however, is whether the Kayan women were more oppressed in Burma before fleeing to Thailand, as opposed to what they are currently putting up with as tourist attractions? Because according to various spokesmen and organisations the treatment and exhibition of the Kayan tribe women is a perfect example of systematic oppression of indigenous people going on around the world. And that oppression grows especially strong in the tourism industry.
Wrapping this up therefore, Ill attempt to give some advices for travelers to be, so to assure they don’t take part in the vicious circle of exploitation of indigenous people, but rather find ways to support initiatives that work for a fairer treatment of them, as well as a fairer tourism industry. That is to say: The problem with organised tourism to marginalised areas we count as interesting, is that we as travelers often don’t know – and we’re certainly not told – in what way the people we visit benefit from, or feel about it. We don’t know how much power the hosting local people actually have themselves over the situation. Thus is it very clever to investigate such matters before visiting places that might be reasonable assuming didn’t plan tourism development in their backyard themselves.
Or simply avoid them, just in case.