In Myanmar a sub-group of the Karen tribe is known as the Padaung (Kayan Lahwi). Women of this particular tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. The women wearing these coils are known as “giraffe women” to tourists.
Girls first start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old. Over the years, the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added. Slowly and steadily the weight of the brass rings pushes the collar bone downwards and compresses the rib cage of the poor girl. In fact the appearance of a long neck is a visual illusion. Actually the neck itself is not lengthened, rather the appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the collar bone. The coil, once on, is seldom removed, as the coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure. Usually it is removed only to be replaced by a new or longer coil. But the muscles covered by the coil become weakened with time and many women often find no other way, but to remove 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 become bruised and discolored.
Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested. An ancient legend claims that the rings protect the village women from tiger attacks, since the big cats attack victims at the neck. Others say that, it is done to make the women unattractive, so that they are less likely to be captured by the slave traders. However, a large number of the community believes that long neck makes a girl more attractive.
Two decades ago, an intensifying civil war between Karenni separatists and the Burmese army resulted Kayar residents to take refuge in Myanmar. Thailand granted the Kayan temporary stay under “conflict refugee” status. Now, the 500 or so Kayans (also known as Padaung people) live in guarded villages, known as tourist villages, on the northern Thai border. But without the citizenship of the concerned country, Kayans have limited or nil access to the basic utilities such as electricity, roads, health care and education. Furthermore, Thai authorities refuse to allow them to resettle outside the so called tourist villages, claiming that they are economic migrants and not real refugees. Every year about 40.000 foreign tourist visits those villages to have a good look of the Giraffe women and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly.