Described by many as "human zoos," northern Thailand’s Padaung Karen hill tribe villages are among the country’s most controversial tourist attractions.
Inaccurately referred to as "longneck" women, girls as young as five-years-old are fitted with brass rings around their necks. Longer rings are added as they grow older, in effect deforming the chest and shoulders to give the illusion that their necks are abnormally long.
For a fee, travel companies take tourists to see these artifical hill tribe villages -- set up purely for tourism purposes -- many of which have been issued friendly-sounding names by government authorities like “hilltribe cultural preservation center."
But while some say the villages give Thailand's hill tribe people a paid opportunity to retain their culture, global rights groups condemn them for exploiting stateless women and children, many of them Burmese refugees who do not have full rights as Thai citizens, in exchange for tourist dollars.
Documentaries like “Silent Hopes” highlight their plight, reporting that while many of the women choose to wear the rings out of a genuine desire to carry on with the tradition, some of these villages have no access to electricity, roads, healthcare and schools.
"We believe that tourists should not participate in the exploitation of these or any other people," said a recent opinion piece on Thailand's Chiang Rai Times website.
"The women receive only a small percentage of the profits that are made, most of the money goes to Thai tour operators. The girls of these tribes will never have the freedom to choose not to participate in this tradition as long as tourists make it profitable."
The Baan Tong Luang hill tribe village, which opened in 2005 in Mae Rim in northern Thailand's Chiang Mai province, is home to six separate Thai hill tribes.
Visitors pay 500 Thai baht (US$16) to get in. Once inside, they can take photos and buy trinkets from the villagers' stalls. The star attraction is, of course, the Padaung women.