While traveling through Myanmar, we visited Inle lake and took a boat tour to see different parts of the rich and diverse lake life. Here we met some women from Kayan state, an area in the east of Myanmar. A lot of people know them for the neck coils some of the women wear and refer to them as “long neck people”, but to most, the tradition and reason behind it is unknown.
The Kayan state is home to many different tribes and ethnic groups. Among them are the Kayan Lahwi, also called Padaung. They are a sub-group of the Red Karen and are part of the Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority. This particular tribe is known for it’s tradition of women wearing metal coils around their necks and knees. As we engaged with the women living on Inle lake, we were told about the origin of this tradition. As the area of the Kayan state is home to a lot of tigers, the metal coils were originally used to protect the women from tiger attacks. Tigers usually target the throat of their prey which is supposed to be prevented by this protective layer of metal. Other than that, there are many different explanations and theories about the origins of this unique tradition. But no one, including the Padaung themselves, can tell where exactly it came from.
Another theory for example says that the women started to wear the coils to appear ugly and undesirable to men from other tribes. In times of conflict between the different tribes it was seen as a means of protection from rape in case one of the other tribes decided to invade the village.
However, eventually the wearing of the metal coils (often coloured golden) became a symbol of beauty and a significant stylistic feature of the Padaung tribe. The women wear them as an accessory to achieve the ideal of a long neck. Girls choosing to wear the coils will start at the age of 4-5. Once put on, the coils must remain on for the rest of their lives and are only removed when additional coils are added. With every year, until a certain age (usually in their early to mid-twenties), new coils are added. Even after death the coils won’t be removed and in a lot of cases the woman will be buried with them.
It is very hard for the body to get used to the weight of the coils. That’s why the number of turns are slowly increased and not put on all at once. Contrary to popular belief, the actual effect isn’t stretching the neck. Because of the weight that lies on the shoulders (sometimes over 20 pounds), the collar bone is pushed down, which creates the image of a streched neck. In case the coils are removed, there are no serious health issues to be feared. They are not essential to upholding the neck. Even though it causes discomfort for the women, it is not as dangerous as some people think and doesn’t end in the neck being too weak and eventually twisting.
Nowadays, many Padaung live in other parts of Myanmar (Shan state) and Thailand. In 1988, people from Kayan state started fleeing the country because of conflicts between the Burmese military and ethnic minorities. Especially in Thailand, they face many difficulties. Due to Thai immigration laws, Burmese refugees are not officially recognized and therefore are considered stateless. While having no possibility of getting a passport and not being allowed to leave the country, they are forced to live in refugee camps/villages close to the Myanmar border. In these villages, the women serve as tourist attractions because of their outter appearance. Tourists are taken to the villages to see the “long neck people” or “giraffe women” and pay to take pictures of them. For the Padaung, tourism is the only way to earn money because they are not allowed to work as illegal migrants. Most of the money however is being kept by the village owners (usually Thai people) which leaves them with barely enough money to survive. Although the government is aware of this issue, they choose not to get involved, as the Kayan refugees are not official citizens and therefore don’t have many of the basic rights Thai citizens possess according to Thai law.
This massive exploitation is not only happing in Thailand, but in most of the places the Padaung have saught refuge in. Their tradition is being used to earn money without the people having a say in it or the chance to leave! Officially the women are able to choose whether they want to wear the coils or not, but in reality they have to in order to earn enough money to sustain their families. It is common for the owners of these villages to even lower their salary in the case that one of the women uses a cellphone or behaves in any other way that is not traditionally enough. Usually, while interacting with tourists the women are forbidden to talk about their situation and living conditions in the village.
Many tourists that visit these villages don’t know or think about the situation of the people living in these villages, but people can take measures against this zoo-like objectification and exploitation of these Padaung women. For example, before visiting a village to see Kayan people, you can do research on different places and how the people are treated there. When going, you can ask to make sure that the money you pay really reaches them and not only the village owners. However a more realistic and direct way to support the women is to buy their handicrafts, which they produce to earn some additional money. They are humans like everyone else and not some attraction created for the purpose of being photographed. Most of them didn’t choose to live like this. You can speak with them, try to understand their situation and maybe come up with a specific way to support them.
We are grateful to have met some incredible women and hope that more people will become aware of the situation the Kayan people are facing right now. With this article we don’t want to discourage tourists from showing interest in the Padaung culture and lifestyle but encourage to learn about it in a more ethical way.