Art, Culture, Books and Travel

The long-necked women of Thailand Another Women Exploitation?

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The Padaung are a group of Karen people who escaped from the Kaya state of Burma to Thailand in the mid to late 1900s. They are refugees of political turmoil and up to date the Karens in Burma are still fighting for their independence. They live in Thailand close to the Eastern Burma-Thailand border and call themselves “Lae Kur” or Kayah. They have their own language different from  the other Karens which belongs to the Kenmic group in the Tibeto-Burman language family, and are the smallest in number among the other Karen people in Thailand.

They are less than forty thousand in total, and only a few families have managed to settle temporarily as refugees in the Maung  district of Mae Hong Son province near Ban Tha Ton in Chiang Rai province. In June 2005 a small group settled near Chiang Dao.

Most of the Padaung are animists, 10% are Buddhists but the number of Christians is increasing due to the influence of  the Roman Catholic Mission that helps them. Padaung women are  famously known for wearing heavy brass rings, up to five kilogramms, around their neck. Neck ring adornment begins at the age of five and is done by welding, which makes the metals very hot, enough to melt. This process leaves a lot of burns and wounds on the neck  making life unenjoyable. They are then locked behind the neck with a special rock.At the age of elev

en, they are changed for new ones and more are added.These rings are worn as long as one lives but are replaced with new ones and more are added every four years.They wear rings on their arms and legs too, but the neck rings are the most pronounced making the others less prominent. All  are important. On the arms, the rings are worn from the wrist to the elbow, and on the legs, they are worn from the ankles to the knees. The rings are beautiful to the eyes, but they  distort the growth of the collar bone which makes the neck appear longer than it really is.The neck is not  stretched, but both the vertebrae and collar bones are squashed. I was told by one of the ladies(Mplang, 46) that she has back pains because of the heavy weight she is carrying. I also got a chance to look at the part covered by the brass rings when one of the ladies (Mlam, 50) agreed to unlock and take off some of the rings close to her shoulders.

My body froze after seeing how many scars she had. I had saved some bahts to buy some rings for my neck too, thinking that they were light, easy to wear and as beautiful as they appear in pictures but I was wrong. There are a lot of myths surrounding the wearing of these rings.

In the belief that tribal ancestors were Dragons and Swans, women wear rings to make them look as tall and graceful as their ancestors. Due to the fact that they live in the wilderness, the Padaung wear rings to protect them from being bitten by tigers. A neck that is extra long is considered  a sign of beauty and wealth and this attracts a better husband in their culture. Its also said that wearing the brass rings could prevent them from  being captured by the slave traders back in Burma.

They also believe that wearing these rings helps to ward off evil spirits that cause death. Rings can be removed  from the neck when a woman has given birth for only three days. And for these days, she has to lie down because without them, the neck cannot stay upright.The second time rings are removed is when one dies and the more you live, the more rings you wear. Men do not wear rings because they can fight back when attacked. Also, they have less movement than women as they are involved in less activities in the community. Apart  from wearing heavy rings, Padaung women dress in white blouses as  part of their tradition.This is different from the other Karens whose virgins are the only ones who dress in white. They also never cut off their hair throughout their life apart from  the forehead to prevent it from covering the face.This above plus the neck rings makes them look alike. They are known to be hard working. Most of them are farmers who grow rice,cotton and tobacco. Many  of them keep animals and make handcrafts.

They hold annual festivals at the beginning of the rainy season, which are believed to bring good luck and prosperity to the community. During this festival sacrifices are given to the spirits for good health and bountiful harvests. It is said by some that, all the communities are only set up for tourists and are not necessarily managed by themselves. If true, does this make them a human zoo?!

by Roselyne Munyenye Princess

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