The Padaung Hill Tribe is an ethnic minority in Myanmar which has been made famous by the brass rings which women in the tribe wear around their necks. Members of the Padaun Hill Tribe call themselves the Kayan; the Kayan are members of a larger ethnic group called the Karen People. The culture of these ethnic groups is quite ancient, and some organizations are concerned that they are also under threat, due to political turmoil in the region.
The Kayan appear to be Mongolian in origin, and they have their own distinct language and cultural traditions. Many of them follow an animist religion, although some also integrate Buddhist beliefs into their religious practices. Members of the Padaung Hill Tribe have typically lived in rural areas, relying on subsistence farming and crafts to survive.
At the age of five or six, girls receive their first neck rings in a religious ritual. As the girls grow up, more rings are added, creating the illusion that the neck is actually lengthened. This is not the case; the necks of the women in the Padaung Hill Tribe appear longer because their collarbones are deformed from the rings. It would be more accurate to say that the women compress their bodies, rather than lengthening their necks. Kayan women also wear rings on their arms and legs.
For women in the Padaung Hill Tribe, the rings are a cultural expression, and a vital part of their ethnic identity. The origins of the practice are unclear, with all sorts of theories being put forward, such as the idea that the rings protected the women from tiger attacks. The rings also play a social role, with more rings serving as a symbol of status for women.
Contrary to popular belief, the necks of Kayan women do not collapse when the rings are removed, although their neck muscles may be atrophied. In fact, women remove the rings to receive medical care upon occasion. Most women prefer to keep the rings on because it is time consuming to remove them, and because their deformed collarbones are not considered aesthetically pleasing.
Due to military conflicts in Myanmar, many Padaung Hill Tribe members fled across the border to Thailand, where they are considered refugees. The Thai government, however, has been reluctant to allow the Kayan women to leave, because they represent a major tourist attraction. In 2008, this attracted global attention, with a United Nations envoy asking Thailand to release the Kayan women, and requesting that tourists not visit the Kayan villages in Thailand, calling them “human zoos.” A young Kayan woman named Zember even removed her rings in protest, and to draw attention to the situation.