Karen tribe women
Two Kayan Lahwi tribe elders at Inle Lake village, Myanmar. (iStockphoto/romitasromala)

The Human Zoo Dilemma: How to Travel Responsibly Among Indigenous Cultures

Visiting exotic tribes on organized tours might seem like a golden opportunity, but they only show you one side of the story. By buying in, you're part of the problem. 

By S. Bedford

“Even though they’re referred to as the ‘long-necked’ Karen tribe, her neck is actually the same length as yours or mine,” explains our guide, pointing to the woman with the brass collar and disenchanted expression. “In fact, her collar bones have been crushed down.”

An English backpacker raises her hand. “Does she get a new ring every year? Like a tree?”

“The collar isn’t made of individual rings—it’s one piece of brass coiled like a sleeping snake. She would’ve gotten her first one when she was around five, maybe a little older, and then received a longer one every five years until she was 20 or so.”

We gape at the woman as our fingers dance on our clavicles, imagining the sensation of our bones gradually contorted into submission. She doesn’t react to our stares and whispers, save for a weary gesture toward her souvenirs display.

“It’s like a human zoo,” my friend Sara murmurs under her breath. I nod, suddenly shameful—as if I’ve been caught staring at somebody with a physical abnormality on the subway. Yet tour groups such as ours parade through this and neighbouring communities every day with village consent.

So why does it feel so dehumanizing?

Read This: Everything You Need to Know About Backpacking Southeast Asia

The answer lies partly in how they  got here. The long-necked sect of the Karen tribe (also known as the Kayan or Padaung people) are an indigenous group from Myanmar who first sought refuge from political unrest in Thailand during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Stateless and bound by enormous Thai government restrictions, they’ve become pigeonholed into displaying themselves for tourists, hoping to profit from handmade knickknacks.

Stopping at the village is just one of the many activities on our hectic day tour from Chiang Mai, embedded between a jungle hike, waterfall swim, elephant ride and visit to an orchid farm. Our guide’s description is brief and none of the Karen women address us directly, which makes the experience seem all the more debasing.

Karen tribe
A girl of the Karen tribe in Thailand. (David Dennis/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Later, Sara and I discuss whether the tour had been an ethical decision.

“But what would happen to them if there wasn’t tourist interest?” Sara wonders. “It seems Thailand’s only letting them in because they’re an attraction. What would their lives be like if they were trapped in Myanmar?”

Unfortunately, the Karen people aren’t the only indigenous group exploited for tourism. Years later, I experienced something similar in the Ecuadorian Amazon when visiting a remote tribe who didn’t seem especially thrilled to have Westerners traipsing around their settlement and freaking out their livestock.

But both communities have become reliant—due to political, economic, environmental, or globalizing events—on the financial gain of exhibiting themselves like circus freaks to bug-eyed travellers seeking a cross-cultural experience.

Despite the inherent sense of disrespect, as Sara mused: without the influx of tourist dollars, to what extremes would these groups be forced? Are such “human zoos” the lesser of a multitude of evils?

Read This: The Morals and Ethics of Travel

Honestly, I don’t know. But any hypothetical alternatives don’t excuse the situation as it stands. Visiting the Karen and Amazonian communities felt like watching those creepy singing child-robots at Disneyland's "It’s a Small World After All" ride.

If the trip to the Karen village is the sole focus of the day, organizers could prep tourists beforehand with historical information and cultural etiquette. Instead of stumbling disruptively through the village, we could meet Karen representatives in a separate area where they’d tell us about themselves in a personal way. Ideally, these tours would even be organized by the Karen people—presently tricky given their legal status within Thailand—who’d directly receive the generated income. Essentially, the tour would be on their terms.

Like all exploitative practices around the world, these tourist attractions exist because there’s a demand for them. While your personal involvement won’t change anything overnight, you can at least sleep soundly knowing you’ve travelled responsibly.

Sue is an indie traveller who has trekked, motorcycled, wandered, bussed, hitchhiked, boated, tuk-tuk’ed and stumbled through more than 50 countries in the last decade. Her travelogue/memoir, "It's Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker," is available from Brindle & Glass through Amazon, Chapters Indigo and Barnes & Noble. Website: www.sbedford.ca / Instagram: @sbedford_86

Read this next: S. Bedford on how to deal with traveller's guilt

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