Kayan Long Neck Tribe in Myanmar
The Kayan people belong to the Red Karen ethnic minority, and reside mainly in Shan State of eastern Myanmar – Burma’s biggest state. About half as many live in Kayah State, and a few hundred more live across the border in Thailand.
Within the Kayan minority there are various different groups: the Kayan Lahwi (or Padaung), the Kayan Ka Khaung (or Gekho), the Kayan Lahta, Kayan Ka Ngan, Kayan Gebar, Kayan Kakhi and the Bwe people (or Kayaw). The most famous of these groups is the Kayan Lahwi, known around the world for their tradition of elongating their necks with brass rings.
For centuries, Kayan Lahwi – or Padaung – women have been a source of curiosity because of their custom of wearing up to 32 gold-coloured brass neck coils. In the past girls adopted their neck rings on their fifth birthday and added one more coil each year until they were married.
Explanations differ as to why – some explain that the coils protect the wearer from tiger bites, others attest that they are intended to make the women less attractive to men from other ethnic groups, and still others claim that the coils are a mark of beauty and a sign of wealth. Another tale records that the Padaung tribe was originally called Lae Khoe, and ruled over the Burmese people. Later, the Burmese and ethnic groups joined forces to fight against the Lae Khoe and drove them off their land. During the war a young Lae Khoe princess escaped. She wrapped the tribe’s sacred gold-coloured Padaung plant around her neck and declared that if the Lae Khoe failed to regain their land, she would never take it off. Since then, the Lha Khoe have been known as the Padaung.
Kayan women rarely remove their coils except to replace them with longer coils. This is partly because the coil causes the neck muscles to weaken and bruises the area around the collarbone – but also because, over time, the women feel as though their coils have become a part of their body, and it feels wrong to remove them.
Nowadays, the custom is fading in Myanmar. Women in only three villages reportedly still maintain it.