Inside Northern Thailand’s “Human Zoos”

Jan 30, 2014 at 5:46 PM ET

Tourists traveling to northern Thailand these days have been flocking to villages that critics have dubbed “human zoos.” The villages are a big draw for foreign visitors eager to gawk at the Burmese “long-neck” women, refugees of Kayan ethnicity from neighboring Myanmar who have fled across the border and now earn money showcasing their tribal customs.

The women’s necks appear abnormally long. They are loaded with heavy brass rings, a practice that doesn’t actually stretch the neck, but deforms the collarbone and chest, giving the swan-like illusion.

Hailing from a Kayan tribe sometimes called Padaung, the refugees fled Burma to escape armed hostilities between government troops and ethnic insurgents more than 15 years ago.

They were given refugee status by the Thai government and are living inside three holding centers in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son, under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since the women are technically from Burma, they are not allowed to leave the region without applying for and buying permits from Thai authorities. This can often be costly, especially if they’re seeking permission to work in Bangkok.

Their presence in Thailand has exposed them to the country’s booming tourism industry, and tourist villages have popped up, allowing visitors from all over the world pay up to $10 to mingle among the Kayan. In these makeshift tourist stalls, visitors buy tribe-inspired trinkets and CDs and pose for photos with their hosts.

But outside the tourist towns, the Kayan live in the same abject poverty as many of the world’s refugees. Local sources tell Vocativ the village of Ban Huae Sua Tao has no electricity because local authorities don’t want to develop it, lest it ruin the “tribal” image.

Instead, villagers have to secretly buy electricity from a more developed Thai town directly up the hill.

The tourist village is a row of souvenir stalls that all kinds of foreigners, from sex tourists to rich Bangkokians, parade through, buying trinkets and taking pictures with the women.

Some of the women do not really live in the village. Those who can afford it work sunrise to sunset, when there are tourists, and then go home to the Thai town above. Those who don’t have enough money stay in the tourist village below.

While Thailand is a reprieve for many who have fled from Burma, a number of villagers say the Thai government could do more to improve their standard of living.

Other residents say they are happy that their children are provided school and they have access to health care in the nearby town of Mae Hong Son, as well as a steady income from tourism.

In Ban Huae Sua Tao, there is one wood hut with a power strip that everybody uses to cook rice. At night, the women do much of their cooking and eating by candlelight, huddled behind the tourist kiosks that tourists from Australia, Canada, China and the U.S. visit from sunset to sundown.

Early and late in the day, when it is bitterly cold this time of year, people gather around campfires to keep warm and boil water for tea.

Some have enough electricity to power a small television.

Ma Ni, a Kayan long-neck woman, cooks dinner by candlelight in the hut that serves as her family’s kitchen. A refugee from Myanmar, she says that when she was younger she did not want to resettle in a third country like the US – but now that most of her friends have gone, she wishes she could leave as well.

Behind the tourist stalls, villagers play games to pass the time.

Ma Ni (right) and her older sister Ma Li (middle) prepare dinner by candlelight while Ma Li’s husband watches. Ma Li used to wear the long neck coils but has since taken them off

Kayan men gather around a fire to keep warm. Ban Huae Sua Tao is located in the remote mountains of northwest Thailand, and can get bitterly cold in the winter months.