The Kayan are a sub-group of the Red Karen aka Karenni people, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Burma aka Myanmar. The Padaung are a Kayan tribe and their name is a Shan term for "the tribe whose women wear brass neck coils". In the late 1980s and early 1990s, due to a conflict with the military government in Myanmar, many Kayan tribes fled to the Thai border area and settled in Northern Thailand. Many villages became ethnotourist attractions, self-sufficient on tourist revenue and without the need for financial assistance.
The women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it.
Young 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. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened; the appearance of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.
Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested, often formed by visiting anthropologists, who have hypothesised (i) that the rings protected the women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive to other tribes. It has also been theorised (ii) that the coils originate from the desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism, as women have more slender necks than men. It has also been suggested (iii) that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore; (iv) the coils might also be meant to protect from tiger bites, perhaps literally, but probably symbolically.
Kayan women, when asked, acknowledge these ideas, and often say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity and associated with beauty.
A common myth says that if the coils are removed, the women's neck will fall over from atrophy and the women will die, but the women attach and remove the coils at will with no such problems. It isn't known whether the skeletal deformation itself is harmful to the women's overall health; according to the women themselves, it is not.
Opinions are sharply divided as to the ethics of using the Padaung women as an ethnotourist attraction. Obviously, there is the claim that the viewing and photographing of the long-necked Padaung in Northern Thailand amounts to exploitation, but those who have taken the time to listen to these friendly villagers and learn about their lives have realised that this is the best opportunity they have available for making a living under the current social conditions. Unlike zoo animals humans do have a choice.
Closeup portrait photographs of longneck women in Matt Hahnewald's