Padaung, the Long-Neck Women

The border mountains between Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. Exotic women with modest smiles, their heads floating on layers upon layers of brass rings, necks stretched out to impossible lengths. Meet the Kayan-Padaung women.

© Karl Lehmann

The Kayan people like beautifying their women in special ways. Apart from the brass neck rings, the Padaung also wear rings on the arms (wrist to elbow) and the legs (ankles to knees), but these are not quite as prominent.

Other Kayan tribes display their beauty by wearing carved elephant tusk in their ears. When a woman is married, her ears are pierced and an elephant tusk of one to four centimetres in length is inserted. The weight of the tusks gradually weighs down on the ear lobe and the ear gets larger and larger, and longer and longer. Each time larger tusks are inserted and the process repeats itself until the woman’s ears become extremely elongated and floppy.


Like already mentioned, the women of the Kayan Padaung villages wear multiple brass rings around the neck, the arms and the legs. Why do they submit to these practices?

The rings, or more exactly one coil of many turns weighs up to fifteen pounds in total. At the age of two to five the Padaung adorn their daughters’ necks with the first rings. Each passing year additional rings are added. Around the age of twenty, up to twenty three rings are nestled around their necks. A Padaung woman is known to wear thirty seven brass rings around her neck! Most women prefer to wear the rings constantly because the skin underneath is often bruised and discolored. And many, after ten years or more of continuous wear, feel the collar like part of their body.


Where does this custom come from? Might this legend be true?

Long, long ago, the headman of the tribe had a dream in which he was told that a tiger was going to kill one of the much-loved children in the village – a child that had been born on a Wednesday. As his own child had been born on a Wednesday and as tigers kill their victims by first breaking their necks, he there and then decreed that all children born on a Wednesday should wear heavy brass rings round their necks. As the tiger didn’t kill a child, it was presumed that the wearing of the brass rings worked, and over the years this custom became popular until it is now institutionalised as part of tribal life. Not only that, it is considered lucky. In fact, so much is this the case, that women try to arrange a mid-week birth so that if the baby is a girl, she will be a fortunate ‘Wednesday’s child.’

Source: East Asia Travel

Perhaps the goal was to make the girls unattractive to slave trade? Or is the origin founded in the belief that an elongated neck is an ideal of beauty and status?

What the rings do, is NOT elongate the neck, but they do push down the collarbone and ribs, creating the illusion of a long neck. The weight of the rings twists the collar bone and eventually the upper ribs at an angle 45 degrees lower than what is natural. Not what I would call comfortable. Removing the coils will not result in the death of the woman – that is a misconception – though their neck muscles will of course be atrophied.

Twenty years ago about five hundred Padaung fled Burma (Myanmar) as refugees. They now live in three villages in Thailand and earn their livelihood as a tourist attraction, selling their handicrafts. The alternative would be a life of slavery, or worse, under Burmese government forces and drug barons who are fighting over their land.

Village women who revolt against this way of life say that they are punished for doing anything modern, like using cell phones or computers. These actions ‘ruin the traditional image’ and tourists won’t pay. Nonetheless some young women are removing their coils in their fight for the right to lead a modern life. The Kayan refugees have been offered resettlement in New Zealand and Finland, but the Thai government won’t give them the exit permits.

Beauty or prison? It is up to these women to alter their appearance this way. But it should be the choice of an adult, not of or for a child. Every culture has its own way and I respect that. But choosing voluntary deformity in the name of beauty? NO!

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49 thoughts on “Padaung, the Long-Neck Women

  1. I questioned this till I went to visit there village., I live in Chiang Rai, Thailand, close to the Burma border . I changed my thinking after I saw the beauty in the people. It’s there tradition hard for us to understand. They don’t understand some of our traditions. Everything has it’s beauty, if we look for it. Thanks for the history lesson.

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  2. This is thought provoking indeed and the rings are beautiful. I do not agree with the stifling of women who choose to remove them or want to be progressive in modern society. This is wrong. However, body modification, if consensual, is okay and can be beautiful and a personal choice. Just as pierced ears are a form of body modification.

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  3. This was so interesting. I’ve seen photos of these women before but you’ve just taught me all about it. They might be a tourist attraction but then so is the fat lady in the circus. Perhaps some horrified tourists will return to their western countries and work towards achieving education for these women about real beauty and the value of female intelligence. They need help, not promotion.

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  4. Very interesting article, Marion. In South Africa there are the Ndebele people, whose women also traditionally wear brass rings around the neck. They probably had a similar reason than the Kayan people for doing so.

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  5. Ik was er een paar jaar geleden op bezoek.Niet te geloven dat ze er in die warmte blijven mee rondlopen.Ik zag ook dat sommige vrouwen wel eens een wondje onder de ringen hadden..Kan niet gezond zijn ,maar nu komen de toeristen naar hun dorp en dat brengt geld in de lade.

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    • Kiezen tussen welzijn en welvaart kan heel moeilijk zijn als je het niet breed hebt. Maar om met zo’n zware last rond te lopen, vreselijk. Cultuur of geen cultuur, letterlijk het juk afwerpen!

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  6. Great article. I am surprised to learn that the neck is not actually stretched, though it is bad enough that the ribs are pushed down like that.

    It’s a tricky subject: ‘cultural validity’ versus the massive deformation of the skeleton being forced onto a child.

    Where do scarifying, male circumcision, female circumcision, and similar practises fit on the spectrum?

    Anyway, I am repulsed at the sight of it – always have been – and I am glad to think that women have stood up and refused to be treated that way.

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    • It takes much courage to stand up against your own people and break with tradition. I applaud these strong women!
      Nature has created us perfect, or at least good enough. No circumcision is needed. It is mankind that thought of this.
      Thank you for your comment, appreciated.

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  7. Some of these foreign cultures dumfound me, Marion. I guess if you grow up under these traditions, it seems normal, but to me? … Thank God, I was born American.

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  8. Another form of needless, religious body mutilation that I haven’t seen mentioned yet is circumcision. This outdated mutilation of the foreskin is blanketly performed in western hospitals not for aesthetics or even religious matters, but under the auspices of “good hygeine.” It is not.

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    • There are a lot of things I still haven’t written about, circumcision being one of them. Thanks for mentioning this, Melly, I think nature has provided the necessary means of hygiene control, without having to make extra ‘improvements’. You are so right!

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  9. Inderdaad beleefde ik plezier aan het lezen van je artikel.
    Ik was 10 jaar geleden op bezoek bij deze stam van super vriendelijke mensen.Het was toen bloedheet en ik zag er uit als een vuurrode tomaat ..de ontelbare ringen rond die hals van de kinderen en meisjes hebben me hen toen, veel vragen doen stellen.Men vertelde daar dat toen al verschillende meisjes het dorp verlieten naar de stad gingen en de ringen lieten verwijderen.Imposant vond ik het .Ik heb zon ring vastgehad.. en 1 goed maar zo’n reeks .Dat gewicht dragen, kan toch niet goed zijn..Volwassenen kunnen kiezen maar kinderen moeten het toch maar ondergaan.Voor het dorp brengt het natuurlijk een aardig centje in kas.
    Maar buiten het zeer speciale aan deze Long- Necked Woman is me vooral de vriendelijkheid van dit volk bijgebleven.

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    • Wat speciaal dat jij hen gezien en met hen gepraat hebt. En jij bewijst weer eens dat niet het uiterlijk maar vooral het innerlijk belangrijk is. De vriendelijkheid staat voor jou in je geheugen gegrift.
      Zware metalen ringen rond de nek van een kind, dat veroorzaakt vergroeiingen, dat kan toch niet anders? Ik hoop dat de kinderen keuzes gaan krijgen hierin.
      Fijn dat je reageerde!

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    • Interesting? Most certainly! Understandable? Yes, but only viewed through the eyes of their culture. For me – with my Western cultural background – it would be unthinkable to burden my children with this kind of legacy.
      Thanks for visiting, Graham! :)

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  11. I agree, great writing. Might I ask where to find some photographs of the Long neck women with the rings removed? Im curious to see the changes of the neck. lol

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  14. Wow, I wasn’t aware of this, thank you for bringing it to light. It reminds me of how in some African cultures the womans vagina is sealed, sewn up and sometimes the clitoris is removed! The pain woman go through in the name of ritual and tradition. The men really do seem to have it easy.

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  15. Thank you for bringing attention to this. This is just one example of women’s bodies being disfigured out of a misplaced sense of beauty. The eastern tradition of feet-binding is another example. I could site high heels in western culture, but some people might take offense.

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    • Will research eastern footbinding for my next post. And what about the corset in the Middle Ages? That was also torture!
      Like you I question high heels and their effect on the human spine. Plus I would break my neck wearing them ;)

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    • That was going to be my next item Marian: foot-binding.
      For us, doing something like that to ourselves is unimaginable. But when you grow up, seeing this happening all around you, it will seem normal.
      Each woman is beautiful in her own way, she does not need these extreme measures to fulfill an imaginary ‘beauty’ ideal.

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    • This too reminded me of the Chinese culture’s foot-binding of women to keep their feet small. I’m Chinese, but was not raised in that country. Thankfully I was born in Hawaii where natives have big feet. Probably because we rarely wore shoes. We mostly went barefoot or wore flip flops.

      I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder…unfortunately the beholder’s eye is usually…

      a man’s…??? hugs, marion…hugmamma. :)

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      • Might it also be possible that women THINK men want us to do specific ‘beauty’ things? And are we not strong enough to decide for ourselves, as far as that is possible in the environment where we live. For me as a Dutch woman, it is easy and accepted. For others it might me different.
        Beauty is in the eye… of ourselves!!! *hugs*

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  16. That is horrible! How could a parent start putting rings around a child’s neck. It looks like a form of abuse to me. :( How’s everything in your part of the world. :) I hope you are having fun with Vman and the Black Knight. :) Have a special Sunday. :) Hugs, JM.

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    • When everyone around you does something, that action seem natural to you and I guess you don’t stop to think about it. A long time ago this tribe has chosen for this ritual. But now the women I mentioned in the last paragraph are realizing that it is not a ‘normal’ thing to do and they want to get out. They NEED to get out and live a life for themselves!
      All is well Jay. Spent a great weekend outdoors, cruising the roads and after that a birthday party. Waiting for my desktop to be repaired, it’s been out of order for about one month already. How are you doing? *hugs*

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