What is the Padaung Hill Tribe?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I would not assume this to be entirely correct. I just returned from a Kayan Village in northern Thailand near Mae Hong Son. No one appeared under lock and key.

My hours spent with a Kayan family suggested these people have intensely strong family ties, little interest in contact with outside Thai society. When asked, "how often do you go to Mae Hong Son" they looked puzzled, almost unable to answer due to their visitations being so infrequent.

They are refugees and not allowed to work legally in Thailand which is not unlike illegal immigrants anywhere in the world. Thailand looks to me to be a gracious host, not a slave keeper of ethnic minorities.


Do the women of the padaung tribe have a choice? Do they have to get the rings? Can men get the rings too?


Do the men have more than one wife? And how do they choose a wife?


This was a very interesting article... I did know these women existed, and I knew about the brass rings, but did not know that they were forced to flee to Thailand. How rude of Thailand to use these people as a tourist attraction!

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