Kayan women is sewing traditional dresses to sell visitors. (Photo: Phyu Zin Poe)

Kayan women is sewing traditional dresses to sell visitors. (Photo: Phyu Zin Poe)

It is believed that only one percent of Burma’s long-necked women remain. 

Young Burmese have rejected the tradition of wearing the heavy metal neck coils, saying the rings are painful and uncomfortable. 

And for those that do, the neck rings have become more of a tourist attraction…

From Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state, Phyu Zin Poe, looks at state of this ancient tradition.

San Bon village is one place Burma’s long-necked women call home.

It's about 30 minutes by car from Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state. It is one of the main places in Kayah state where women are known to wear the brass neck coils. 

Residents say that in the past all the women here wore the neck coils as a symbol of their identity.

But now, only five out of 200 women here wear them.

Muu Phoe, 50, is the only one in her family who wears the neck coils. 

“At first, I didn’t get used to it,” she explains, “It was painful. I wanted to take them off, but I was worried that I might lose them. These neck coils mean a lot to me because I inherited them from my grandma. After a week of the pain, I got used to it and I felt alright to wear them.”

Muu Phoe has been wearing the neck coils now for 20 years. And they never come off, not even when she sleeps. 

There are 14 rings around her neck and in total they weigh 12 kilograms. She also wears brass coils around her knees. 

When I met Muu Phoe she was busy sewing traditional dresses in her tent, to sell to the tourists that visit her village.

“When tourists come to see us, we make some money by selling them these clothes,” says Muu Phoe, “We depend on the tourism business as we were unable to farm anymore.” 

In the time of her ancestors, the brass neck coils were a symbol of identity, beauty and wealth. 

There is no written history of when Kayan women first started wearing the neck rings, but some historians says the tradition dates back to 800 years ago.

“In the past, girls who could wear the most numbers of brass neck rings were the most popular among the young men in the village, Explains Muu Phoe, “If a girl didn't wear any neck coils, she would find it difficult to get married.”


Traditionally, Kayan girls started to wear neck rings on their fifth birthday – each year they would add one more until they were married. 

But these days the custom is fading out. In this village less than 10 women wear the rings.

And for those that do, it is mostly for the benefit of tourists… They work in hotels and perform traditional dances for the guests.  

Others travel to neighboring Thailand and China, where they can also find work in the tourism industry.

33-year-old Muu Lae says she gave the neck rings a try but she just couldn’t get used to it.

“I tried to put these brass coils on for a day, but they are too heavy,” she exclaims, “I could not eat, I could not open my mouth, I could not go to toilet and I could not sit. I wonder how my aunt who wears them could stand with these coils.”  

Instead, Muu Lae sells the brass coils and traditional clothes to tourists. 

It’s mostly Burmese tourists that buy the coils to wear for special occasions, she says.

“Some foreigners and local people from Yangon come to buy these brass neck coils,” says Muu Lae, “But the majority of my customers are Kayan villagers. Most Kayan women come to buy these brass neck coils to wear in traditional celebration events but not to wear for life.” 

But as the tradition of wearing the rings for life dies out, some say there needs to be an urgent solution to preserve the tradition.

Kyaw Than is an advisor of the Kayan cultural preservation group. 

“We need a master plan for maintaining this cultural heritage,” he says, “Giving jobs to these women at hotels is not a solution to maintaining the culture. We need suitable job opportunities for these women to be able to maintain these culture.”

Although Muu Phoe says protecting their heritage is important, none of her daughters will wear the neck rings. 

“I don't know what will happen in the future, this is our ancestors' cultural heritage,” she says, “I want to maintain this culture, but I could not say whether it will survive.” 

 

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