During my time in Thailand I hoped for the opportunity to see the Kayan (Karen) people, who are renowned for their tribal dress, especially the brass neck coils worn by the women.
The Kayan are a subgroup of the Red Karen (Karenni) people, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar and have many groups within.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s due to conflict with the military regime in Myanmar, many Kayan tribes fled to the Thai border area. Among the refugee camps set up there was a Long Neck section referring to the long necks of the Kayan women, especially in the Mae Sot area, this became a tourist site, self-sufficient on tourist revenue. Now as I travelled through Mae Sot I tried to locate this village but feeling wary of the over touristy side to it, but I was quite intrigued. However on the day I couldn’t find it despite directions from the locals so I eventually gave up.
So it was quite a surprise on my trip around Inle lake that I found the net stop was to see some Kayan women who had settled around the lake. They were extremely friendly and once again this was their revenue alongside their weaving. So I was a happy man, and brought a few souvenirs in gratitude.
Some info from Wiki about the coils.
Women of the Kayan tribes identify themselves by their forms of dress. Women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe are well known for wearing neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck, appearing to lengthen it. The women wearing these coils are known as “giraffe women” to tourists.
Girls first start to wear rings when they are around five years old. Over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened; the appearance 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. It has also 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, and often say that their purpose for wearing the rings is cultural identity (one associated with beauty).
The coil, once on, is seldom removed, as the coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure. It is usually only removed to be replaced by a new or longer coil. The muscles covered by the coil become weakened. Many women have removed the rings for medical examinations. Most women prefer to wear the rings once their clavicle has been lowered, as the area of the neck and collarbone often becomes bruised and discolored. 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 had worn the rings for over 40 years removed them. After removing the rings, women report discomfort which fades after about three days. The discoloration is more persistent.
The government of Burma began discouraging neck rings 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 and some of the younger girls in remote villages continued to wear rings. In Thailand the practice has gained popularity in recent years because it draws tourists who bring revenue to the tribe and to the local businessmen who run the villages and collect an entry fee of 250 baht per person. The Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF), an armed cease-fire group, have made attempts to invite the Kayan to return to Kayah State 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 developing 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.