A Kayan Lahwi girl in Northern Thailand
The Burmese Giraffe Neck Women have a number less of 500 women. They are all from a clan by female inheritance, the Kayan Lahwi synonym Long Necked Karen by some thousand members. They are from Padaung tribe synonym Kayan tribe and this tribe have today a number about 50.000 persons.
Padaung synonym Kayan is a subgroup Red Karen people, and they all are a part of Karen people by Tibeto-Burman and ethnic minority of Burma (Myanmar).
"Kayan Lahwi" is developed as a combination of Kayan by slash and burn and Lawi tribe by neck rings from Laos and North Thailand.
The Kayan consists of the following groups: Kayan Lahwi (also called Padaung), Kayan Ka Khaung (Gekho), Kayan Lahta, Kayan Ka Ngan. Kayan Gebar, Kayan Kakhi and, sometimes, Kayaw.
Padaung (Yan Pa Doung) is a Shan term for the Kayan Lahwi (the group whose women wear the brass neck coils). The Kayan resident in Mae Hong Son Province in Northern Thailand refer to themselves as Kayan and object to being called Padaung. In The Hardy Padaungs (1967) Khin Maung Nyunt, one of the first authors to use the term "Kayan", says that the Padaung prefer to be called Kayan.On the other hand, Pascal Khoo Thwe calls his people Padaung in his 2002 memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s due to conflict with the military regime in Burma, many Kayan tribes fled to the Thai border area. The Thai government has granted them refugee status, but they are allowed to live only in certain areas. Villages displaying Padaung women with brass neck coils for tourist dollars appeared.
According to U Aung Roe (1993:21ss) Kayan number about 40,000 in Shan State (around the Pekon Township area) and 20,000 in Kayah State (around Demawso and Loikaw). A 2004 estimate puts the population at approximately 130,000.About 600 Kayan reside in the three villages open to tourists in Mae Hong Son, or in the Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp.
Present Settlement of the Kayans
A historic photo of a mother from about 1910.
According to Kayan tradition the Kayan settled in the Demawso area of Karenni State (Kayah State) in 739 BC.Today they are to be found in Karenni (Kayah) State around Demawso and Loikow, in the southern region of Shan State and in Mandalay’s Pyinmana and Karen’s Than Daung township.
There are three Kayan villages in Mae Hong Son province in Thailand. The largest is Huay Pu Keng, on the Pai river, close to the Thai Burma border. Huai Seau Tao is a commercial village opened in 1995. Many of the residents of Nai Soi Kayan Tayar moved into the Karenni refugee camp in September 2008, but a few families remain there.
Most of the Kayan people in Mae Hong Son are formerly from nine villages in Karenni State. The majority are from Rwan Khu and Daw Kee village. The people of Huay Pu Keng are mainly from Lay Mile village.
Women of the various Kayan tribes identify themselves by their different form of dress. The Kayan Lahwi tribe are the most renowned as they wear ornaments known as neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck. The women wearing these coils are known as giraffe women to tourists.These coils are first applied to young girls when they are around five years old.
Each coil is replaced with longer coil, as the weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. Contrary to popular belief, the neck is not actually lengthened; the illusion of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle.Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested, often formed by visiting anthropologists, who have hypothesized that the rings protected women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive to other tribes. Contrastingly it has been theorised that the coils originate from the desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism, as women have more slender necks than men. It has also been suggested that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore.The coils might be meant to protect from tiger bites, perhaps literally, but probably symbolically.
Kayan women, when asked, acknowledge these ideas, but often say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity (one associated with beauty). The rings, once on, are seldom removed, as the coiling and uncoiling is a somewhat lengthy procedure. They are usually only removed to be replaced by a new or longer set of coils. The women do not suffocate if the rings are removed, though the muscles covered by them are weakened.
Many women have removed the rings for medical examinations. Most women prefer to wear the rings once their necks are elongated, as their necks and collar bones are often bruised and discolored from being hidden behind brass for so long. Additionally, the collar feels like an integral part of the body after ten or more years of continuous wear.
In 2006, some of the younger women in Mae Hong Son started to remove their rings either to give them the opportunity to continue their education, or in protest against the exploitation of their culture and the restrictions that came with it. In late 2008, most of the young women who entered the refugee camp removed their rings. One woman who wore the rings for over 40 years also removed her rings. The women report temporary discomfort which faded after three days. The discoloration is more persistent.
The government of Burma began discouraging this tradition as it struggled to appear more modern to the developed world. Consequently, many women in Burma began breaking the tradition, though a few older women still wear them and in remote villages some of the younger girls are carrying on the tradition. In Thailand, the practice has gained popularity in recent years because it draws tourists who bring business to the tribe and to the local businessmen who run the villages and collect an entry fee of 250B per person. The Karenni National People's Liberation Front (KNPLF), an armed cease-fire group, have also made attempts to invite the Kayan to return to Kayah State in order to set up their own tourist villages.
In January 2008, the UNHCR expressed reservations about tourists visiting the Kayan villages in Northern Thailand due to the Provincial Government’s refusal to allow registered Kayan refugees to take up offers of resettlement in third countries.It is believed this policy was linked to their economic importance to the area. This policy was relaxed in late 2008 and a small group of Kayan have left for New Zealand in August 2008.Others entered the main Karenni refugee camp (which is not open to tourists) in September 2008 and they are now eligible for resettlement.
The Kayans’ traditional religion is called Kan Khwan, and has been practiced since the people migrated from Mongolia during the Bronze Age.It includes the belief that the Kayan people are the result of a union between a female dragon and a male human/angel hybrid.
The major religious festival is the 3-day Kay Htein Bo festival, which commemorates the belief that the creator god gave form to the world by planting a small post in the ground. During this festival, held in late March or early April, a Kay Htoe Boe pole is erected and participants dance around the pole.This festival is held to venerate the eternal god and creator messengers, to give thanks for blessings during the year, to appeal for forgiveness, and pray for rain. It is also an opportunity for Kayan from different villages to come together to maintain the solidarity of the tribe.
The Kayan have a strong belief in augury and nothing is done without reference to some form of divination, including breaking thatch grass, but most importantly consulting the chicken bones.
In present times the annual Kay Htein Bo festival is always accompanied by a reading of the chicken bones to predict the year ahead. Fowl bone prognostication can be witnessed in the Kayan villages in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province during the annual festival and during “Cleansing Ceremonies” which are held when a family has encountered ill fortune. Dreams are also used to make predictions.