For some time already, the longneck or giraffe women of Myanmar and Thailand have been a source of both fascination and controversy. These women wear several golden rings around their necks (and other parts of their bodies), thus elongating it to an abnormal size and shape.
With the growth of tourism in both countries, they have become an attraction and the highlight for many travel photographers and tourists alike. However, several myths surround the well-being and the simple existence of these people. Moreover, tourism might very well be both their doom and salvation.
By know you might be asking yourself:
Why do Kayan women wear these big rings around their necks?
This tradition has been part of an ancient tradition among female members of Kayan Lahwi (also called Padaung), a sub-tribe of the Red Karen (or Karenni) ethnic group native to Kayah State in Myanmar. Many myths and legends surround this ancient tradition:
- the rings are worn as self-protection from tiger attacks often aiming right for the neck;
- they are used to imprison women or keep rival tribes from abducting them by lessening their beauty;
- if long neck people remove the rings they will die.
However, while some of these legends are centuries old, more common theories point towards the rings being a symbol of position, beauty and wealth. They were expensive fashion items and commonly reserved for favourite daughters in each household. However, the practice is becoming a rarity and facing an uncertain future.
Today, many women have decided to abandon it, choosing a more modern style. The ones that continue to wear the rings do so not only because of any dedication to the tradition, but for pragmatic, commercial reasons instead: big-spending tourists come to the area to take pictures of long-necked women.
What exactly are these rings?
The Kayan women wear brass coils – not rings – made from brass and gold alloy, not only around their neck but also around their limb extremities. A full set comprises three spiral brass coils – one on the collarbones, another on the neck and the last one wrapped around the bottom piece. Together, they weigh about 10 kilograms. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record for longest neck belonged to a Padaung woman, with 40 cm.
Girls first start to wear rings when they are around five years old. Over the years, the coil is replaced by a longer one, and more turns are added, up to about a dozen. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened; the deformation of the clavicle creates the appearance of a stretched neck.
The coil, once on, is seldom removed, as the coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure. It is usually only removed to be replaced by a new or longer coil. The muscles covered by the coil become weakened. Many women have removed the rings for medical examinations. Most women prefer to wear the rings once their clavicle has been lowered, as the area of the neck and collarbone often becomes bruised and discoloured. Additionally, the collar feels like an integral part of the body after ten or more years of continuous wear.
Also, no, if they remove the rings, Kayan women will not die.
How did Kayan women get into Thailand and what’s the issue with that?
By the late 1980s, the intensified civil war between Karenni and the Burmese government caused the Kayan people to flee from Myanmar to the northern hills of Thailand. The Thai government granted them access as economic migrants, not as refugees.
They were put in guarded villages around Chiang Mai and Pattaya (which are basically refugee camps), where they have been on display for tourists – selling souvenirs and posing for tourists to take pictures (essentially working in a live-in gift shop) and for the local governments to make money ever since, like if they were zoo animals.
Unfortunately, the entry fee in the villages is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Residents receive an allowance of food and toiletries and profit from handicraft sales, and women wearing brass rings earn an extra salary. Village owners decrease wages if women discuss their plight with visitors or use anything modern, like cell phones or computers.
Many of the Kayan men and women were not allowed to leave these artificial villages or the area without a Thai ID card, and as they are Burmese refugees, they can not apply for one to build up a future elsewhere. Without legal citizenship, they even have limited access to water, electricity, infrastructure, health care and education. However the local schools do not offer education above 6th grade, and without an ID card, the Kayan people do not have the right to health insurance, which means a visit to the hospital is not affordable for the small wages they make selling handicrafts to tourists.
More recently, thanks to the ceasefire in Myanmar, some of them have been able to come back to their origins and with their families in Loikaw, Kayah State. Loikaw is their actual home and, there, they walk freely and are just one more citizen.
Visiting the Kayan: is it ethical?
Today it is no secret that the Kayan have been exploited in the name of tourism, and it is not without justification that Kayan villages in Thailand have been called ‘human zoos’. So far, this phenomenon has yet to get a foothold in Burma, but care must be taken to ensure that tourism does not endanger the culture and dignity of the Kayan people. Kayah state was until recently closed to outsiders, having open to tourists in 2014.
If you are considering visiting a region of Burma where you might encounter Kayan people (or any other ethnic minorities), be sure to use a responsible tour operator and only travel with an accredited local guide. Your guide will not only ensure that you follow cultural etiquette but will act as a bridge to the people you meet, giving you the chance to make a more meaningful connection with these communities. Whatever you do, don’t just turn up, take a few pictures, and leave. Ask permission before taking photographs, read up about the local culture, and stay longer than an hour or so if you can. There is nothing wrong with interacting with people from minority groups in Burma; but when they become just another checkbox on your bucket list, you’ve gone astray.
Find out more by watching the short documentaries Kayan: Beyond The Rings and Silent Hopes!.
Do you know the Southeast Asia tours by The Wanderlust?
Find out here!