The Kayan are a group of Red Karen, a Tibetan-Burmese ethnic minority group of people of Myanmar and Padaung is the term in Shan language for the Kayan Lahwi sub-group in which the women wear spiral rings or brass coils around their necks and have become famous as the ‘giraffe women’. They use those rings to make their necks look longer, which makes a girl more attractive.
There are conflicting opinions regarding neck rings of the Kayan women. According to a local myth, the rings protect the village women from tiger attacks, since the big cats attack victims at the neck. Others opine, the rings make a woman unattractive, so that they are less likely to be captured by the slave traders. However, most of the members of the community believe that, the ring of coils makes a neck grow longer and a longer neck makes a woman charming.
Since the age of around five, the Kayan girls are destined to wear brass rings around their necks and over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one with more turns. Gradually, the weight of the metal rings pushes the collar bone downwards and compresses the rib cage of the poor girl. It is considered that the process increases the length of the neck, however it is not true. Actually, the appearance of a long neck is a visual illusion, which is created by the deformation of the collar bone. Since the coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure, the coil is seldom removed. Usually it is removed only at the time of replacement of the old coil by a new and longer coil. But, in the long process the muscles covered under the coil become weaken and many women are often forced to remove the rings for medical examinations. As the area of the neck and collarbone often become bruised and discolored, most women prefer to wear the rings once their clavicle has been lowered.
Due to conflict with the military regime in Myanmar, many Kayan tribes fled to the adjacent Thai border area during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, there are three Kayan villages in the Mae Hong Son province in Thailand. Among the refugee camps, there was a Long Neck section, which became a tourist site. They were granted a temporary stay by the Thai government, under ‘conflict refugee’ status, but without the citizenship of the concerned country.
The Kayans have limited or nil access to the basic utilities of life, like health care and education and are not allowed resettling outside the so called tourist villages, as they are supposed to be economic migrants and not real refugees. However, those villages draw about 40.000 foreign tourists every year in the country, which in turn bring revenue. As a lucrative tourist attraction, the Kayan women have no other way but to live in a virtual human zoo and they receive only a very small portion of the money generated by tourism.
But, as the local government refused to allow the registered Kayan refugees to take up offers of resettlement in developed countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) clearly expressed resentment about the tourists visiting the Kayan villages and the policy was considered to be linked to their economic importance of the area. Finally, the restrictive policy was relaxed in late 2008 and in the month of August in the same year, a small group of Kayan left for New Zealand for resettlement. The remaining members of the Kayans were also shifted to the main Karenni refugee camp, in September 2008, which is not open to tourists and they are now accepted to be eligible for resettlement.
Recently the younger girls in Mae Hong Son have started to break the tradition and remove their rings.