Kayan Long Neck Tribe in Myanmar

Anthropology: How the Kayan Contributes to Ethnic Diversity as a Minority in Burma

You may encounter queries about why Burma generated so many ethnic minorities? Who are they? The answer would be the strategic location. The country is surrounded by Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos, and China. History has it that migrants started settling on the Burmese Plateau through the mountainous roots before formal borders were assigned. As a result, more than 135 minority ethnic groups cropped up. The Kayan was one of them. Out of the total, only eight have government affiliation. 

The choice was not made properly and the location was the only criterion. Consequently, those who weren’t recognized by the government fled to remote pockets of surrounding areas, where no one could find them. Hence, the dejected minority ethnics led to several years of isolation and inaccessibility. Moreover, the various cultures that brought in ethnic minorities like the Kayan who existed in Burma contributed to the diversity.

Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe known for wearing neck rings brass coils to extend the neck

History of Ethnic Minorities

In Yunnan Province in China, about 1500 years ago, the Pyu, Tibeto- Burman-speaking people started living. In the 9th century, Burma was called Thailand as well. They approached from the south. The Bamar people, who also belonged to Yunnan in China, invaded from the north and ended Pyu domination. Instead, they set up a Pagan kingdom. Ancestors of future Burma.

Burma regained independence after the fall of the Pagan kingdom after 500 years of rule. Once freed, independent states and kingdoms were established. Some fell but reformed anew. In course of time, they increase the number of rivals. But Burma appeared as a leader in the end. In the meantime, when distortion of the war phase against China and Siam ended. The British overtook them in 1886, and till then they were waiting. Burma became a part of the East India Company.

However, after taking possession, the British started creating problems with the ethnic minorities. Complaints regarding biases and favoritism in British policies were growing. As a result, rivalries and bitterness between the minorities developed. Moreover, some got befriended by the Britishers and some vacated. The Britishers left Burma, leaving them independent. But though independence was assumed for betterment, actually it was not.

The great liberation of Burma was made possible by General Aung San. In association with the leaders of minority groups like Shan, Kachin, and Chin, he drew up an agreement to free the minority groups. The contract was termed the Panglong Agreement. But, the ethnic minorities didn’t like the way they were represented. Moreover, in a hurry, few names of ethnic minorities got missed. Following the death of Aung San, the Panglong Agreement could not be established. Rather, minorities of Burma got indulged in a nasty Civil War.

kayan people thailand

Example of an Unrecognized Minority Ethnic Group

Presently, the Rohingya: Muslim rehabilitation is a big controversial issue. They were once residents of Burma. They’re moving to Bangladesh and settling in Rakhine state was a common affair in the past. But at present, the ban on citizenship from Burma as well as Bangladesh has left them stranded. Along with the Rohingya Muslims, the Burma government has prohibited citizenship for Anglo-Burmese, Tibetans, Gurkha, Burmese-Pakistani, and Panthay. 

Young Kayan women

Recognized Minority Ethnic Groups

The major minority groups in Burma belonged to the Bamar region. Their diverse culture brought Burma to the limelight. You can guess how diverse the minority groups can be. For example, the “sea gypsy” who lives permanently on the water, the tattooed women from “long-necked women” from Padong belonging to the Kayan minority, and the Naga-headhunters from India.

Kayan women

Origin of the Kayan

In Burma’s biggest city, Shan, you can find The Kayan residents. They belong to the Red Karen minority ethnic group. Further, half stay in Karan state, several hundred have gone across the borders to Thailand. Within the minority group, there are several other groups, like Kayan Lahwi, Kayan ka Khouang. Kayan Letha, etc. But among them, the most famous in the world is Kayan Lahwi. The tradition of the elongated neck and brass rings is amazing.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, they got indulged in problems with the military regime of Burma. This led to their fleeing to Thai borders.

Amazing Life of the Padaung People

Mystery Behind Brass Coils Worn by The Kayan Women

From an early age of five, the Kayan ladies start wearing brass rings. The tradition is most common in Kayan Lahwi or women from Padong. Further, with the increase of age, the number of coils increases. In course of time, the rings become an integral part of the body and women hardly remove them. They believe it would be wrong to remove those coils. Only when longer coils are needed or bruises on the collar bone need treatment, the neck coils are removed.

Kayan Tribe

Myths Behind the Kayans Wearing Brass Coils

There are a few myths with an explanation regarding the Kayan women wearing coils around the neckline.

  • Sign of wealth as well as beauty
  • Armors to prevent tiger bites
  • To safeguard ourselves from appearing attractive to men from other ethnic groups
Women from Kayan tribe

Medical Version About Tradition of The Kayan

Medical practitioners have falsified the idea behind long necks. Their impression is the neck doesn’t get stretched. Because of the brass coils, the neck appears longer. The neck portion remains intact and all the pressure is transferred to the collar bones and rib cage. Moreover, the brass coils push down the latter. Cuts and bruises appear because of prolonged usage.

Kayan Tribe Woman Fixing Neck Zember's Coil

Traditional Dress of The Kayan

If someone compares traditional dress to being used universally by the Kayan, he will be mistaken. Because the variety of traditional dresses varies amongst the groups. For instance, the traditional dress of Kayan Lahti is quite different from the complimentary groups. The dresses are generally hand-woven with cotton threads derived from self-grown cotton plants. Further, white and red combination cotton threads are used to sew the traditional dress.

The Kayan are an ethnic minority of Burma


The Kayan gents wear a floral shirt and short pants while the women wear a dress that wraps their waist. What the women wear resembles Burmese lungis. Long drapes of white cloth adorned with red stripes are what women wear. These dresses have lengths below the knee. Along with hand-woven floral blouses, the traditional dress is completed.

Moreover, Kayan Lehta women grow long hair when they are ten years of age. The tradition is to tie the hair in top knots. Use scarfs in a white and red combination. Metals woven with strings are used to beautify more. Women wear them as a necklace and tie them to their forearms. Gents wear them too. The ornaments most particularly are the wild pig’s tusk. Men wear them as weapons to encounter wild animals.

The giraffe women of Burma

At Present

Traditional dress is seldom worn. Only on special occasions, can we view them. Otherwise, Burmese clothes are mostly worn.

Modernization of the Kayan

The custom of wearing copper coils around their neck as in earlier days by Lewis of The Kayan minority group is not mandatory among women nowadays. Deciding whether to wear those copper wires around the neck or not is quite complicated. Moreover, the military regime was instated in Burma as a vision to modernize a lot of practices by the government. Putting coils around the neck and tattooing the body felt unlawful. Moreover, the government felt it was violating Burmese culture.

Myanmar’s neck ring women

The popularity of the Kayan in Thailand

The ethnic minorities who escaped to Thailand took shelter in the refugee camps. The old tradition of wearing coils around the neck became a popular attraction. Representing themselves as the Giraffe Necked Woman became a source of income for many. As a gesture to protest against the commodification of culture, many removed the coils. Surprisingly, those who removed the coils have started wearing them for decades.

As per records, the Kayan settlement occurred in around 739AD in Karenni state, more specifically in the Demawso area. The population count conducted in 2004, refers to around 130,000. The coil necked women’s center of tourist attraction-savings made by tourists made them self-reliant and no need of aid from elsewhere. An entry fee for tourists was imposed to allow them to visit the villages ranging between 500-600 baht.

Kayan Tribe Children

About the Custom And Culture of the Kayans

It is not that every individual in the Kayan group has the custom of wearing neck coils. Only a few of them adhere to the tradition. The rest of the people follow something else. However, wearing copper neck coils has brought fame to the Kayan. The Kan Khwan is the religious tradition that exists in the society of Kayans. It is believed to have originated from the mother’s side. Further, Kan Kwan has existed since the bronze age.

Women of the Kayan tribes

Hypothesis by Anthropologists Regarding the Kayan Tradition

The coils worn by the Kyan ethnic minorities have various explanations in store. But the anthropologist went deeper into finding the main reason. As per hypothesis, there were many conclusions by which the original Kyan woman accepted the findings. The rings were beautifully blended with cultural identification.

Child of the Kayan tribes

Theories from Anthropologists

  • Protect women, making them look less attractive to other tribes. Measure to safeguard women from becoming slaves
  • It was a contradictory finding that coils were subjected to long-necked women, to heighten the sexual appeal
  • Further, they added that the coils resemble Dragons, a prominent character in the Kyan mythology.
  • However, the fact behind the tiger bite can not be finalized. 
The Kayan People Of Myanmar

Major Festival of the Kayan Minorities

The name of the main festival is Kay Htein Bo. This festival depicts the creation of the world. It would be unlikely for the Kayan people to take vital decisions without performing some divine rituals. Like breaking grass that is thatched or reading the bones of a chicken. The prime purpose for organizing the festival Kay Htein Bo is a prediction of what awaits in the future. 

Amazing Life of the Padaung

More about the Festival Celebrated by The Kayan

As per The Kayan mythology, God created the world by plowing a steak on the ground. This belief was transformed into a ritual. Today, as a replica, decorated poles are used. The long ceremonial poles are capped with traditional ornaments and chicken bones accompany them. By using these ingredients, the Kayan minority expect to learn about the fortune of the year ahead.

Myanmar Kayan Tribe Neck Rings
Myanmar Kayan Tribe Neck Rings

The Kyan Minority Ethnic Group in Thailand

The strife in the past forced the Kayan to flee to Thailand. But even in Thailand, they encounter challenges in leading life. Because their status is still refugees, they have limited facilities. They cannot move freely, they have to remain within their villages. Even the children of the Kayan minority are ineligible for Thai citizenship. Consequently, those children wouldn’t get authorization to go to school. Rights to education remain restricted. Due to restrictions, they can’t be employed outside. The Kayan’s have to be self-sufficient.

Kayan Tribe Festival

How ethical would it be to visit the Kayan minorities?

  • It’s no longer a secret that tourism has exploited the Kayan people residing in the northern part of Thailand. Fortunately, the minorities of Burma haven’t experienced the phenomenon. However, the villages belonging to Kayan are being considered human zoos. The tourism agents must be careful to retain the culture as well as maintain the dignity of the Kayan people.
Kayan People LIfe

Better Travel Experience

If you want to do your research, the ethical trip to The Kayan villages would be justified. However, if those villagers are used to sensitizing their tradition, culture, or dressing, it won’t add any value. It would be advisable not to treat them inhumanly. Always keep in mind the people in the tribe have limitations to work, they rely more on visitor’s contribution. For sustaining life, women are found selling handcraft.

Kayan Tribe Women

Tips for Visitors to Meet the Kayan Villagers

  • It is better if you can do some research in advance. Finding private guides would be beneficial for you. They know better about the village culture and will guide to explore better
  • Instead of giving charity to some third party, it would be better to make contributions directly. Chief of the village or making purchases of handcraft may help.
  • For a better travel experience, don’t restrict yourself to photoshoots. Rather than mingle with the natives, try to listen to more of their stories.
  • Always remember tourism shouldn’t get evidence to brag at home. It is more about connecting cultures. Moreover, don’t treat them as specimens to exploit.
Daily lifestyle of preparing meals of Padaung women

Significance in Anthropology

Also named Karenni, there is a famous sub-group that belongs to Burma’s Red Karen people. This ethnic minority, termed the Kayan, is a well-known Tibeto-Burman community more popular because of the culture of women wearing coils around their necks. The age-old tradition dates back to the Bronze age. However, the Kayan group originated in Burma. But hostility towards the Burmese military regime made them flee from Burma. At present they are spending life as refugees, without any benefits from the Thai Government. Moreover, the distribution of education facilities for future generations is not yet streamlined. If you manage to interact with the members, you know about their culture, tradition, dress, livelihood, etc. Each year about 40,000 visitors flock to view these wonder women with “Giraffe Neck”. They are awestruck at something like the coils being used by women to stretch their necks. But, there are controversies about tourist visits.

Kayan Tribe one of the oldest women

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