Life of the Padaung in the remote Kayah state of Myanmar

Life of the Padaung

One of the most striking ethnic tribes in Myanmar are the Padaung (also called Kayan Lahwi), a sub-group of the Karen – only indigenous to the Kayah State of Myanmar. This is for sure no secret, than the first Padaung had been taken to the UK for „exhibitions“ in the early 19th century. The outstanding book „From the Land of green ghosts“ written by Pascal Khoo Thwe enforced me to visit these extraordinary people. In my opinion it is a must read before entering Myanmar and its state Kayah. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took over power in beginning of 2016, just after a longer transition from military rule to a civilian democracy. It was time to embark on a cultural exploration through the country. I resisted the temptation to visit the Padaung in bordering Thailand, where a lot of them escaped to when the burmese army tried to conquer their lands. While in Thailand most Padaung ended up weaving in human zoos, I was hoping to encounter the remarkable ethnicity in their authentic environment – hence, this journey wasn’t possible when Kayah was part of the restricted areas until it opened up late 2015. Obviously, the tradition of the Padaung ladies is a disappearing one. Modernisation and discomfort are main factors. As long as the elders can’t convince the youth to maintain this tradition, it will be soon lost forever.

I felt honored to roam these historical grounds which suppose to emerge tourism industry as soon as Thailand and Myanmar will officially open a border in between. Together with a local guide, who is familiar to the area I’ve been visiting villages where the rustic life of the Padaung is still going on and where their culture has been preserved over many centuries. Most of the Padaung are animists, with a belief in natural ghosts and shamanism. Some Padaung have converted to christianity or buddhism long time ago. There are many different reasons why the Tibeto-Mongolian tribe practice the bizzare custom of the coils on their necks. Their own mythology explains that it is done to prevent tigers from biting them. Others have reported that back in the days it made the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders of the burmese kings. The most common explanation, though, is the opposite of this — that an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband.

Girls first start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old. More coils are added over the years. The only reason to release the coils is to replace a new or longer coil. I was told, that releasing the coils was considered a punishment for the women (betraying the husband for example). The brass neck coils, which can easily make 6 kilograms, pushes the collarbone down while compressing the rib cage. Some young girls still follow the tradition and wear the cupper coils to stretch their neck. While others already changed to „clip on coils“, since they know well about the potential of tourist money.

Check out my gallery of “The Padaung black & white portraits” or the color version “The Padaung color portraits”