Published on August 17, 2007
"They come and visit us throughout the day. Most of them want their photos taken with us," she said as she weaves a scarf in front of her hut, which is part of the "Ethnic People's Agricultural Eco Ways Conservation Group at Ban Tong Luang".
Bo, 18, said she did not mind that paying tourists came in to stare at her because she earned money that she could send to her family back home.
"If I don't get this job, I'll go back to my family in Chiang Rai," she said, while showing her hut which was built before her arrival a year ago. Inside is an area for cooking, a sleeping area, a mosquito net, a mirror and clothes.
Another long-necked girl, Dao, said she only had to hang around her hut, sell souvenirs and welcome the tourists.
"My life is better here than in Chiang Rai," she said, adding that she was also allowed to go out on some days. Like the first two, she has never set foot in the orchard, where she was supposed to work.
These Karen enjoy the attention of the visitors, mostly from Europe, Korea, Japan, Singapore and the Middle East. They live a happy life, having not much work to do though they were brought here on work permits to tend the trees for Bt2,000 a month plus free room and board.
They should be on the farm, but instead, they remain at the huts to entertain the visitors who always end their plantation tour with a stop at the small village. This raised suspicion that these long-necked Karen were hired for show, not for farm labour as stated in their work permits.
"It seems like their lives were sold but we'll check legal matters first," said Manoon Punyakariyakorn, director-general of the Employment Department. "We're looking to see if the work permits were filed in line with the foreign labour law."
National Legislative Assembly member Mukda Intasarn expressed concern that the long-necked people seemed to be put on exhibit.
"I will consult with fellow assembly members to see if this constitutes a breach of human rights," she said.
An investigation late last year showed that the hamlet had 18 long-necked residents on work permits issued to labourers from Burma. They consisted of two men, 11 women and five children. The plantation supervisor showed evidence that the people were there for two months for farm work and nobody collected money from tourists for going to the village.
Tourists hand over Bt500 at the entrance booth to the longan plantation, but get no admission ticket. Contrary to the farm supervisor's note, tour guides say the highlight here is the long-necked ethnic people, who live at the farthest corner of the plantation.
Once visitors step into the village, they are greeted by the long-necked girls and women, who sit in front of their small abodes weaving, pounding roasted rice and selling souvenirs. They put on smiles and are ready to pose besides eager tourists for snapshots. Some receive tips for that, others do not.
It appears that none of them sees herself as a tourist attraction, just like other long-necked Karen living in Mae Hong Son or other parts of the North. And it is uncertain how authorities are handling this, given that all parties seem to be benefiting from this pseudo display.
The Karen themselves are pleased to be at Ban Tong Luang as long as they receive their salary in return for doing nothing.