Cultural education or human zoo? A Kayan Lahwi refugee village in Thailand

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Near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is a small village which is home to a group of people who call themselves Kayan Lahwi (though tour guides call them the Padaung.) They moved here after fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar/Burma. Denied formal refugee status and therefore the right to work in Thailand, they are allowed to remain here as a tourist attraction. Visits to the village are part of the standard tour packages offered to visitors to Chiang Mai, and many tourists choose to pay a visit to the ‘Long Neck village,’ and to have their photographs taken with the the exotic ‘giraffe women’ who live here. Tour guides don’t mention the male members of the community, who weren’t in evidence when I visited but  presumably must be around here somewhere.

Visits to the ‘Long Neck Village are a featured offering in tours marketed to visitors in northern Thailand; a time-pressed visitor can buy a day tour packaging a hour or so looking at the Kayan Lahwi with an elephant ride or a visit to the ‘Golden Triangle,’ an area famous for opium production in years past. A few tour companies, though, refuse point blank to have anything to do with what they call a ‘human zoo’ and a ‘gross violation of human rights’ (one blog points out that putting refugees on display for profit is a violation of United Nations High Commission for Refugees – UNHCR – guidelines.)

Other see it differently, among them SeattlePI correspondent Denis Gray. Writing several years ago, he argued that

Economically it’s a virtually perfect arrangement. Everyone gets a cut — the once impoverished Padaung, Thai businessmen and government tax collectors, even a rebel group that uses the money to finance its war with the military regime in Burma.

What do the Kayan Lahwi themselves think about their role as a tourist attraction? It’s not easy to find out, since apparently not too many visitors think to ask them (or have the time to do so during the short visits their package tours allow them.) An exception is Gordon Sharpless, blogging on the site Tales of Asia.‘ Posing the questions ‘Human Zoos or just some folks trying to make a buck? Or both?’ he writes

I talked at length with one eighteen-year-old girl who seemed content with her situation. Ideal? No, of course not, but in her words, the best she could hope for in Myanmar is backbreaking farm labor for next to nothing in return (she insinuated that she was essentially slave labor in Myanmar). In Nai Soi, her life of souvenir selling and posing for photos is at least comfortable. Life could be worse. She told me the longneck tradition as an integral part of her identity and one which she is proud of. Aware that it’s a highly unusual situation, she can live with being a tourist attraction. And she can talk with foreigners and learn a bit of their world as well, something she could never have done in Myanmar. She added further that they’ve been able to attend school here and purchase supplies with the money they make.

I came away from my very short visit to the village feeling very uncomfortable indeed. Compounding my discomfort, I filmed what I saw.  I am posting the video below in the hope that others will find as much difficulty in watching it as I did making it, and in the even greater hope that one of the villagers might see the film, and let us know how she feels about it (at least while tourists are around, this seems to be a village without men, who apparently lack any qualities tourists find photogenic.)

I look forward to reading your thoughts,  either on this site or on my YouTube channel.



  1. Dawn May 24, 2014
  2. Mary July 4, 2014
  3. Katarina Soerensson May 27, 2015
  4. Brittany McBride July 9, 2015
  5. Dwolfy October 1, 2017

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