The Padaung tribe is a subgroup of the largest Kayah tribe, which in turn is a subgroup of the Karenni. The Padaung have no written language and are best known for their long-necked women. The tribe is named after the Padaung region, where most of them live. There are about 10,000 people in the tribe.
“Padaung” means “long neck” in Shan anguish. Their houses and villages are scattered in the area between the Kayah State, east of Taungoo, and south of the Shan State. Some inhabit the plains of the Paunglaung River basin, which are also part of Kayah State, east of Pyinmana.
The traditional costume of the Padaung woman is a colorful and elegant turban with a short, thick shift and loose legs. Padaung women wear a short, dark blue skirt, hemmed in red, with a loose white tunic, also trimmed in red, and a short blue coat. When working, they wear short-sleeved trousers. Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, “The traditional wardrobe for Padaung women is a red sarong dress with a blue or magenta jacket and a towel-like headcover. The most distinctive are the dozens of rattan rings that surround their belts”. Men wear the basic Southeast Asian Tongji.
Padaung Long Neck Women
Padaung’s famous long neck women wear brass coils – not rings – around their necks. A symbol of wealth, position, and beauty, coils can stretch the neck on one foot and weigh over 20 pounds. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest neck world record—8 inches— belonged to a Padaung woman. The Ndebele of South Africa wears rings around their necks. Padaung means “long neck.”
The coils are made of brass and gold alloy. As long-necked women cannot tilt their heads back, they drink from straws. According to British journalist J.G. Scott, some voices sound “like they’re talking from the bottom of a well.”
Padaung women may seem to have long necks, but this is an optical illusion. As the coils are added, they push the collarbone and ribs down, creating the appearance of a longer neck. Stretching the neck would result in paralysis and death. Removing the coils does not cause the woman’s neck to collapse, although the muscles weaken.
Dr. John Keshishian, an American doctor, wondered what was happening anatomically to stretch the woman’s neck. Did the use of the rings create gaps between the women’s vertebrae? And if that was the case, was it dangerous? After X-raying several long-necked women in Rangoon, he discovered that the neck was not expanding. Instead, the women’s jaws are pushed up, and their collarbones are pushed down by the weight of the coils, causing the shoulders to tilt.
Life of Padaung’s Long Neck Women
A woman told the New York Times: “It can be a little boring and hot and it hurts when you first put it on… When you take the brass off, you’re a little dizzy, and for a minute or two, you shouldn’t walk. You feel very light, and you have a little headache as if you were wearing a heavy backpack and suddenly took it off”. Women also wear more brass loops around their legs, which weigh up to 30 kilos. These rings force women to swing when they walk and sit up straight.
Amit R. Paley wrote in the Washington Post, “Nae Naheng, 52, the matriarch of the family said the Padaung believe women used to be angels in the past world, and that male hunter used rattan rings to catch them and bring them to Earth. Women are never supposed to remove the rings. Narang said he even sleeps on them and only for a short time takes the rings off in the shower. “I took them off once when I was young, and I felt sick and unfortunate,” she said. “If you don’t wear rings, your soul will get sick, and you may die.” [Source: Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, August 23, 2009]
“It is also adorned with jewels and ornaments of which the most remarkable and unusual are the thick bronze rings around the neck, worn down to below the chin. The rings may look bulky, but the Padaungs believe that beauty lies in a long neck, which is considered graceful like that of a swan. The tradition of wearing bronze rings around the neck is slowly being discarded, but there are still some who continue to follow this ancient custom.
By the age of 6, girls can choose whether or not to wear the rings. Users say they are not uncomfortable, although their weight forces them to lower their shoulders, making their necks appear longer. According to the Sydney Morning Herald: “Young girls usually start wearing about 3.5kg of the brass coil around their necks and keep adding weight until they are over 11kg. They also use coils on their legs. The women said the rings were painful when they were young, but now they don’t hurt at all, and there are no health problems associated with their use. None of the Padaung I spoke to knew any story or reason to wear the rings. It was just a tradition, they said.
“Why do we wear the rings,” said Mamombee, 52, whose neck seemed unusually elongated. “We do it to make a show for foreigners and tourists!” I couldn’t tell if she was kidding. But Mamombee said she doesn’t like to take them off except every three years to clean herself. “I feel bad when I take the rings off,” she said. “I look, and I feel ugly.” [Sources: peoplesoftheworld.org; Sydney Morning Herald]
Padaung Long Neck Women Customs
No one is sure of the evolution of custom. The Kayans don’t have a written language. Even the elders don’t know it. There are different theories about how the tradition originated. One suggests that men put rings on their wives to deter slave traders. Another says the rings protected children from being killed by tigers, which tend to attack in the neck. According to some, Padaung women began wearing the rings to protect their necks from tiger attacks and continued to wear them after tigers were no longer a threat because Padaung men felt the rings made women more sexually desirable. Some say the custom has been dreamed up and perpetuated by tour guides. Most agree that it is a form of adornment and that it may have been a way to save and show off family wealth. A Paduang woman told National Geographic: “Wearing a brass ring around your neck makes you beautiful”.
In the old days, it was said that women never took off their rolls and that if they did, the woman’s neck would fall off and she would die of asphyxiation, a punishment sometimes applied if the woman committed adultery. This seems to have been a myth. These days, women often do not use their coils, and it appears that their necks are not at risk of suddenly falling off. The belief that only girls born under a full moon on Wednesday can wear them also seems to be a myth.
Traditionally, at the age of five, the first coils are placed around a young woman’s neck by a healer who has chosen the date for this ritual by examining the chicken bones. The first set of coils has an interval of about the seventh step above the clavicle to allow mobility of the head. As the girl grows taller, the more massive sets of curls replace those that no longer grow”. A small cushion on top of the rings cushions the chin. A 12-year-old girl told the New York Times she started using the coils when she was six and was 16 around the neck, which cost 160 bucks,
The custom is dying in the traditional villages of Pandaung in Myanmar, where people are so weak that they would rather spend the money they earn on rice than on brass, but they are gaining new converts along the Thai border.
Padaung Long Neck Women and Tourism in Thailand
Several hundred Padaung live along the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Some have fled to Burma to escape the war. Most have come to Thailand to earn money by showing off to tourists who express themselves in the eyes of others. In Nao Soi and Mae Hong Son Thailand, visitors pay $10 to be taken to a village where they can take pictures of a woman with a long neck. In Huay Puu Kaeng the women are paid by the operators you live in a town on the Father River that can only be reached by boat. Many foreigners do not like to practice and describe the villages as human zoos, but they visit them anyway.
Some places have become dependent on women to take tourists. The president of the Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times: “Long-necked Paduang is the main attraction to attract tourists to our province. All tourism-related businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and transportation services, would be severely hit if they left.
The practice has become so profitable that the women of Padaung can support large families with their income”. Many are collecting their daughters not out of respect for traditions, but earning money in the future. The purchase of the coils is considered an investment. The girls’ parents are often pleased, and the men like to marry long-necked women because of the money they will bring.
Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times: “About ten thousand tourists visit Nai Soi every year to see about 50 long-necked women and girls who pose for photographs and sell postcards, bracelets, and souvenirs. They pay 250 baht (about £4) each; Mr Surachai admits he accepts up to 150,000 baht per month (£2,400) of the entry fee. Of this amount, women and their families receive rice, chili and cooking oil, and a monthly stipend of 1,500 baht (£24) for each set of neck rings. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, 8 April 2008 >>].
Sometimes the coils are placed on girls as young as two. An 8-year-old who refused to use the loops told AP, “I prefer to be normal. Nobody can make me use the coils, but my friends think they are pretty with the rings around their necks and they are also paid for”. In 2007, Lloyd wrote, two Kayan moved to a rival tourist attraction near Chiang Mai, where they were also paid more than double. When the news broke, the local business was outraged, the police were called in, and Long Neck’s fugitives were brought back under arrest.