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Wednesday, 25th May 2016

The Kayan women of Burma

Visitors to Burma have long been fascinated by the women of the Kayah state to the east of the country, due to the brass coils they wear around their necks. This custom seems alien to other cultures, but for the Kayan it has been carried out for centuries as having a long neck is seen as beautiful.

Are the necks stretched?

Despite popular belief, the necks of Kayan women are not actually longer than anyone else’s, as the practice pushes the muscles around the collarbone down. This gives the appearance of a longer neck without actually stretching it.

How the practice is achieved

Girls in the Kayan culture tend to start wearing the neck rings at the age of five, when a brass coil is wound around their necks. They start off relatively small, with more rings added as the girls get older.

Wrapping the metal around the girls’ throats is done by women within the community and they can take several hours to put in place. This is because the brass is thick and hard to manipulate into the coils required. It is done by hand to ensure the shape and size is right for the recipient.

Wearing the coils

By the time a woman reaches adulthood, she will have accumulated a full set of rings, which can weigh anything up to ten kilos. Despite this, there is little restriction from the coils on a woman’s body or breathing, allowing her to carry out all her usual tasks with the brass collar in place.

As uncoiling and recoiling take so long, this is only usually done when longer versions are being put in place. Many Kayan women say it is uncomfortable without the rings on, since they become so used to them and add that they feel naked without them. Since the skin underneath is also discoloured, it is very unusual to see a Kayan woman without her collar.

How the neck ring tradition began

There is no formal record to say exactly how the practice of wearing coils around the neck in this part of Burma began. There are plenty of theories, however, with some being a protection against tiger bites or to emulate the dragons of local legend.

The future of the brass coils

Many Kayan women choose to continue the custom of wearing the neck rings, as it is a part of their culture that sets them apart. Girls are now given the choice as to whether or not they are fitted with the collars. With many opting to wear them, this unusual practice looks set to continue into the near future at least.

Related news stories:
A guide to Burmese festivals ? one for every month of the year (6th June 2016)
Mrauk U - an archaeological gem at the end of the Kaladan River (8th September 2015)
Top 10 Burma sunset spots (18th August 2016)
The history of Yangon's Strand Hotel (9th May 2016)