Getting to Mae Hong Son was an adventure in itself: a 10-hour windy and bumpy ride that snakes up and down the numerous mountains and valleys on a beat-up bus. Mae Hong Son is an unassuming little town; The lack of pancakers probably helps to keep the relaxed atmosphere.
Walking the streets at night – with the locals eating on the street-side stalls, the lit up temple reflecting off the serene lake – it’s hypnotizing.
The reason I went to Mae Hong Son was to use it as a base to see the long-neck women of the Karen tribe who live as refugees (yet do not have refugee status) in Thailand. It’s a whole bureaucratic mess that smelt of corruption in every level. So therein lies the dilemma: do we support this abusive system and pay to visit this “human zoo”?
My friend and I were thinking about renting a bike and did it on our own but that would indeed be treating these people like “caged animal” as we’ll not be able to communicate with them but merely there to take pictures, just like we do in zoos.
We were lucky to find a very knowledgeable guide who is actually interested in the welfare of the tribes. Mr. Wallop Chayakarm (firstname.lastname@example.org) or George as he likes to be called seemed to be loved by the people we visited; he would talked and joked with them and played with the children. The money we paid, he assured us would go back to the community; i.e. building materials, food, clothes, etc.
So we followed George to a “long-neck village”. Just before we got there, I actually saw a long-neck woman riding at the back of a motorbike, which I totally didn’t expect to see. It was kind of out of context and a reminder that they are just normal people.
In the “village”, constructed to live off the tourist money, we got to see how the people live. The women donned their rings and sold souvenirs while the men sat in groups and drank. Instead of just snapping away, George introduced the women to us and through him we asked some questions and thus made the interaction more personal.
At one of these souvenir stalls, I met Emu.
She’s 24 but looks 16. She sells necklace made from colored stones she collected around the refugee camps. She spoke good English so I was able to talk to her. She told me that she came to Thailand from Burma 14 years ago. Her mother and grandmother actually left Burma when the Burmese soldiers first took siege of their village. Then her mother wrote letters looking for her and she came to Thailand with some of the Karen soldiers. But her father is still in Burma.
I asked her if she had a better life in Burma or in Thailand. Without hesitating, she said “Thailand”. She went on to explain that in Burma there’s war going on and life is hard, very hard. But here in Thailand, although she lives in a camp, she got to study. She really likes to study. The only set back is that, for the refugees, they only get 12 years of education. She has finished it and she would like to continue studying, but there’s no way for her to do it.
“But do you want to go back to Burma?” I asked. “I can’t go back. They delete the names of those who left.” She can’t go back to Burma and the Thai government doesn’t want to recognize their refugee status in order for them to be granted asylum by a third country, so she is stateless, existing in a constant state of limbo. She can’t move ahead nor go back.
There are thousands upon thousands of people like Emu. Visiting this “human zoo” has given me a deeper understanding in the plight of the Karen people and it has put a human face onto an issue that I knew very little about.
So, here I’m sharing my thought and experience and bringing the story of Emu to you.