(Benoit Mahe/CC BY 2.0)

Melanie Keyte, 21, is an Australian journalist and University of Queensland student who recently worked with Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB, a nonprofit journalism organization in Southeast Asia. For a story published in July, “When an Ethical Boycott Backfires,” she traveled to northern Thailand to report on the negative impact of a sharp drop in tourism for the so-called “long-neck women” who live there. Keyte tells Latterly how she reported the story and how she felt standing among the tourists at the “human zoo.”

Where did you discover this story?

A colleague of mine put the idea in my head. He had traveled to the border village of Do Ki Ta before to work on his thesis, and told me the villagers were having trouble with a lack of tourists because of bad press relating to the “human zoos.” I was intrigued by the idea, as I aim to be an ethical and conscientious traveler myself.

I started doing some research and discovered it was difficult to find any coverage of the Padaung women since a flurry of stories condemning their village as a human zoo in 2007 and 2008. I felt that the media had indignantly picked up on the issue, and then abandoned it without any thought of the potential consequences. Ethics, particularly ethical tourism, is not black and white. Often when people decide to boycott, it’s the people on the ground who suffer most.

I see you traveled to northern Thailand to report this piece. Did DVB send you, or is wandering throughout Asia a hobby of yours?

A little bit of both, to be honest. The trip to Mae Hong Son province was a DVB-sponsored adventure, one which I’d been pushing to make almost since Day One of my internship. Having never been to the northern areas of Thailand, I was desperate to make at least one journey there, and I was lucky in that my editor was eager to send me somewhere interesting. Perhaps he just wanted me out of the office for a few days!

You could say traveling anywhere is a hobby of mine, although that sounds a little clichéd. I absolutely love northern Thailand, but I feel as though I’ve only just scratched the surface of Asia. So far, I’ve visited Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, China, and I am currently in Mongolia.

The tourists and human rights groups seem saddened by these villages, but what was your sense about the people who live there? Do they feel trapped? Do they see themselves as spectacles in a human zoo?

It was difficult at first to get a genuine response from the women, and it’s impossible to generalize about all of the villages’ inhabitants. Very few spoke English beyond the perfunctory, “No, my rings don’t hurt,” so drawing answers from them on such a delicate topic came with mixed results. Mapaung, the woman from Kayan Tharyar who features most in my story, was fairly happy to be gawked at, and was only dismayed that she may have to leave her village for a more populated one. One of the women I spoke to in Huay Sua Thao said she would much rather live in her village as a long-necked woman than work in the fields or in a shop back in Burma.

However, in the Baan Tong Luang hill tribe village outside of Chiang Mai, it was clear the women were not happy. One spoke to me of wanting to return to Burma, but mostly they just responded with a line about maintaining tribal traditions in a monotone. The tourists usually didn’t bother trying to talk to them, aside from haggling for souvenirs, and when they weren’t looking at camera lenses, the women would often stare into the distance as the guide explained their “exotic” appearance.

The overall sense I got was that the women living in the villages around Mae Hong Son were grateful for the easy income and were happy to remain near their homes. The women in Chiang Mai had all been moved into the hill tribe village, and only existed as a tourist attraction. It really comes down to whether the women feel they have a choice in being a long-necked attraction or not.

You spoke to a tourism expert who recommends finding the right travel agency. Are there agencies that share profits with the hill tribes?

Most of the organizations running tours to see the hill tribes are smaller, local outfits, sometimes run out of guesthouses and the like. As far as I know, none of the major travel agencies share any of their profits with hill tribes.

What about education and health care? Do the hill tribe people have access to the benefits regular Thais have access to?

The classification of the Padaung people in Thailand is complicated. Originally, they were given refugee status to allow them to reside in Thailand. As refugees, they were not allowed to leave their camps, and, in the Padaungs’ case, they were later dolled up and converted to tourist attractions. After a push for resettlement by the United Nations in 2007 and 2008, Thai authorities began insisting that the Padaung are not refugees, and that they live in Thailand voluntarily. In both cases, the Padaung people are not entitled to the same education and healthcare services as Thais. In some villages children can go to school, but rarely are they treated to a formal education.

I realize you’re a journalist there to do a job, but how did being in the village make you feel?

I felt very uncomfortable in the Baan Tong Luang village near Chiang Mai. And actually, it was being around the tourists that made me feel most awkward. Overhearing ignorant remarks and seeing the women treated as though they were interesting statues was disheartening. And although I was there mainly to photograph and observe tourists, and not the Padaung women, I couldn’t help but feel immensely guilty when I did take pictures of them. Many of the women thought I was odd, as I would wait around with them until some people appeared, then I would jump up and start taking pictures of the tourists photographing the women. Then the people would go, and I would sit down again and try to chat to them.

The villages around Mae Hong Son were less uncomfortable, especially as the women were happier to talk to me. It was a far less difficult interview process, and I didn’t feel as guilty taking their photos.

Ben Wolford
Ben Wolford is editor of Latterly. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.