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neck stretching in Myanmar

The sovereign state of Myanmar, also referred to as Burma, is bordered by India, Thailand, and China, with a long western coastline that extends along the Bay of Bengal.  This large geographical area that rests in southeast Asia is home to the Karen people, an ethnic group composed of several smaller hill tribes.  Amongst those tribes, the Kayan Lahwi, or “Padaung” represent a population that most of us would probably recognize upon sight.  Often referred to as the “Longneck Tribe,” the Kayan’s female members have long been known for their beautiful neck rings.

 Asian map showing Myanmar

Beginning around the age of four or five, girls start wearing the “rings,” which are really a single, long brass coil that is wound around the neck to form a series of tight revolutions.  As a woman grows, new longer coils are added, bumping up the number of complete revolutions and adding to the weight of the overall assembly.  Due to the length and delicacy of the process, coils will generally only be removed in order to be switched out for new or longer replacements.

 coils from childhood to late adulthood

The nickname of “Longneck” is actually a bit of a misnomer, as traditional brass coils don’t actually lengthen the vertebrae.  The weight and rigidity of ever-longer sets of spirals eventually forces the clavicle down and creates a tilt in the ribcage, pressing the upper chest lower and flatter.  This gives the illusion of a longer, more modified neck.  After years in this state, fluid may build up in the spinal discs to accommodate the clavicle’s changing structure, lengthening the space between the cervical vertebrae.  As these gaps increase, the rings will become a requirement to alleviate strain on the neck, as the muscles will begin to weaken from nonuse.

As with other Asian hill tribes, piercings of the nose and ears are also common amongst many of the Karen groups, as well as beautiful white tribal makeup, usually worn across the cheeks and nose bridge.  Although other theories have been suggested, most of the Padaung women respond to questions concerning the reason for their neck modifications with comments about social identification and beauty or feminine appeal.

 western beauty and tribal imitation

Today much of the Padaung population is concentrated at the border of Burma and Thailand due to recent conflict with the Burmese military establishment.  The government of Burma has begun to discourage the use of neck rings, and women from the younger generations have been known to remove existing coils in favor of a less traditional lifestyle.  The popularity of permanent refugee camps has continued to evolve as a tourist attraction however, and those who come to view these amazing modifications continue to visit both Burma and Thailand, seemingly undeterred.

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