The Kayan tradition of wearing a brass coil around their neck has attracted tourists, anthropologists and journalist alike.
Because of this tradition the Shan people called this long-neck tribe ‘Yan Pa Doung’ meaning ‘Karen brass wound people’, this name was adopted by the Burmans and Thais who refer to the people as Padoung.
This particular form of body modification has likely been a Kayan tradition for over a thousand years.
The 'rings' are in fact a long brass wound spiral. The spiral is wound around the neck manually by womenfolk. Brass is a tough metal and the process that can take several hours depending on length.
A full set of neck rings weighs about 10kilos. The full set of neck rings is made from three separate coils, the main neck coil and a wider coil near the shoulders with a small coil wrapped around it at 90 degrees. Few women wear this full set.
Brass coils are also worn around the legs. The rings rubbing against the skin can cause discomfort and abrasions over a period of time. Typically pieces of cloth are used to help protect the skin.
There are many false stories about the impact the rings have on movement. Claims that wearing the rings mean you cannot look up or that you have to drink through a straw and absolutely false. Though heavy the impact the rings have on movement is minimal and many girls who wear the rings regularly play volleyball.
Click on the image to the left to see an animated X-ray of the neck ‘lengthening’.
There are many tales told concerning the tradition of the ring wearing. A popular one amongst guides to the village is that the rings are worn to protect against tiger bites, but this is almost certainly false. It is also nothing to do with the day they are born.
Other more credible stories tend to involve one or more of the following themes:
- The wearing of a large amount of jewellery including the rings was a method to stop valuables being stolen by melting them down and wearing them.
- The rings identified the women so that they would not be taken by other tribes.
- The rings are a status symbol for women as, according to Kayan legend, they are the descendant of the Mother Dragon "She".
- They are worn for beauty, as the various tribes vied for attention in a kind of 'beauty contest'.
It is impossible to know what the true story is since there is no written history of the Kayan culture, however the tradition is likely to stretch back to at least the 11th century.
There are four sub-groups of Kayan distinguished by different traditional dress. In addition to the ‘long-neck’ Kayan there are also Kayan who wear a long coil brass around their arms or just around their legs.
The Kayaw also wear a brass coil around their legs. The Ndebele tribe of South Africa has a very similar tradition of ring wearing.
Ring Wearing in Huay Pu Keng
In Huay Pu Keng all women individually chose whether to wear the rings or not. Girls from the age of five can wear the rings; some decide to put the rings on later and some who wear the rings later remove them. The primary reasons for wearing them now are for beauty and to preserve their culture while they are in exile as well as to help generate income.