How long is your neck? That’s really such a weird question that you may think “who will care about the length of their necks?” But when you see the Kayan women, you will be totally amazed and wonder how long their neck is.
If you have ever heard of the famous long neck women of Northern Thailand, you have probably seen pictures of the so-called “giraffe women” and you may have wondered how, and why they strive to make their necks look so unusually long. We’re here to learn all about the fascinating history behind this cultural tradition, and to find out how it fits into today’s society.
Brief Introduction of Long Neck Women
Many different cultures around the world express themselves with their modes of dress, and the Kayan are no different. In this tribe, women wear brass coils around the neck. From as early as the age of five or six, girls are fitted with brass neck coils, which they will wear all their lifetime, and every two years or so a new coil will be added on. It is said that they will never take off these coils, until they get married, give birth to a baby or die.
The coils are very heavy. It can weigh from 5 kilograms to 10 kilograms. It’s incredible for us to wear such heavy stuff around the neck, but these Kayan women just get used to it. And the longest neck among them can reach 70 cm.
Actually, the neck rings do not physically make the neck longer as such, but they push down on the collar bones and rib cage, giving the illusion of length. And the rings are actually one long length of coiled metal, wound together so that it looks as though the wearer has many metal rings around her neck. Removing them is a cumbersome process, so generally, women never take them off unless new coils are being added.
How Do They Cope with Brass Coils in Their Daily Life
As above mentioned, women will wear brass coils for their whole lifespan. They have to clean their coils and necks regularly. Usually, several women will gather together and help each other. They stuff straw into the ring and scrub it, and use towels to clean their necks.
In the summer, the coils are exposed to the sun and get hot easily. In order to keep them cool, they have to stay in the river in case the coils burn their neck skin.
Sleeping can also be an issue, and the women have to pad around the neck area to prevent pain and bruising.
Why Do They Wear Brass Coils
The collar bone is gradually displaced as the rings are added over the years, which can cause damage to the outer body as well as the internal organs. And it can even cause the vertebrae in the neck and spine to collapse, leading to pain and serious mobility issues. So why do they wear it?
There are several different sayings about why long neck women wear brass coils on the neck:
1. The long neck makes the women resemble the long neck dragon, which is an important cultural symbol for the Kayan.
2. The rings could protect these weak women against tiger bites to the neck!
3. Women wearing these rings would be less attractive as slaves, meaning that they would be less likely to be stolen by another tribe.
4. When men go hunting, women have to stay at home to protect their treasure. They cast gold, silver and copper into coils and wear them on the neck so that no one can steal them.
5. The neck rings are made from brass and gold. They are expensive and not available to all Kayan, so they are also a symbol of wealth and beauty. The more rings they wear, the richer they are.
No matter what reasons make Kayan women still wear metal rings today, it’s obvious that tourism plays a crucial role in preserving their unique culture.
The History of Migration
The “long neck women” are from a tribe called the Kayan, a sub group of Myanmar’s Karenni people, who fled from Myanmar to Thailand in the 1980s. There was a great deal of unsettlement and uncertainty due to the conflicts between rebels and the military regime in Myanmar at the time, and many Kayan fled to their neighboring Thailand for safety and to raise their families in peace.
Long Neck Women Boom the Tourism of Thailand
The Kayan people settled in Northern Thailand and lived in a refugee camp. Why Thailand government didn’t drive away these immigrants? It was because the “long neck women” quickly became a tourist attraction. More and more people were curious about Kayan women’s unique and exotic looking, and went to the village in order to know more about them, or just to take pictures.
It boomed local tourism and brought many profits to the government. Even today, the government makes a lot of money from tourism. However, most money is taken by the government. Only a small portion is given to these women as a salary, which is hard for them to live a rich life.
Nowadays, more and more women feel that wearing brass rings is a burden for them. It not only brings bad effects on their physical health but also stops them from moving to the modern world. There are many who feel that this practice is outdated and should be relegated to the past.
More and more women are standing up and saying “no” to wearing the coils, although there are still many – especially in the older generations – who feel that it is part of their heritage and should be celebrated. Cultural identity is a large part of wearing the neck rings – the tradition has been around for thousands of years, and as such, it can be hard to move away from this, even in the 21st century.
There have been reports of the older generation kicking back against the rings however. One woman had apparently been wearing the rings for forty years before she decided to remove them! The neck muscles are weakened and it can take time to build them back up, but generally, ex-wearers can regain their full mobility and normal range of movement fairly quickly. The bruising and discolouration from the rings can, however, last much longer. Also, after many years of wearing the rings all day and all night, it can feel very strange to have the rings removed – almost as though the wearer had lost a limb.
It can be difficult for women to rebel against the government. They are not allowed by the government to take off neck rings, otherwise, their salary will be reduced. Their continued refugee status makes it impossible for them to seek work away from their area, and there is no way for them to make money without the income generated by the tourism.
Education is also an issue, with young Kayan having limited access to learning, making it even more difficult to find a good job in later life.
It is estimated that around 40,000 tourists a year, paying roughly $10 each, will stop for photographs and interactions with the Kayan, making this a rather lucrative business. The women also supplement this with hand made art and trinkets to sell to the tourists who have been drawn in by the long neck women.
What a unique culture to foreigners! What a cruel culture for those women!
Cultural identity is important, particularly for those who, for whatever reason, are forced to leave their homelands. This, coupled with the income generated by tourism, means that the long neck women will almost certainly be around for many years yet to come.