LOIKAW — Myanmar"s so-called "giraffe women," famous for the traditional neck coils they wear, appear destined to disappear. Young Burmese have rejected this tradition of wearing the heavy brass rings, saying they are painful and uncomfortable. And for those who do, carrying on the custom has become less about tradition and more about earning a living from tourists.
San Bon village is one place where Burma's long-necked women call home. It's about 30 minutes by car from Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state. Residents say that at one time all the women here wore the neck coils as a symbol of their identity. But now, only five of 200 local women wear them.
Muu Phoe, 50, is the only one in her family who wears them. "At first, I couldn'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."
That was 20 years ago, and now she never takes them off, not even when she sleeps. There are 14 rings around her neck, weighing a total of 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds). She also wears brass coils around her knees.
When I met Muu, she was busy sewing traditional dresses in her tent to sell to the tourists that visit her village. "We depend on the tourism business as we are unable to farm anymore," she says.
During the time of her ancestors, the rings 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 as far back as 800 years.
"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," Muu explains. "If a girl didn't wear any neck coils, she would find it difficult to get married."
No longer about heritage
Traditionally, Kayan girls started to wear then on their fifth birthday, adding one each year until they were married. But these days, the custom is understandably fading out. Those carrying on the custom tend to do so to earn a living, often working in hotels and performing traditional dances for guests. Others travel to neighboring Thailand and China, where they can also find work in the tourism industry.
Muu Lae, 33, says she gave the neck rings a try but just couldn't get used to it. "I tried to wear them for a day, but they're too heavy," she says. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't open my mouth, I couldn't go to the toilet and I couldn't sit. I wonder how my aunt, who wears them, can stand them."
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Kayan girls in Thailand — Photo: Benoît Mahe
Instead, Muu Lae sells neck rings and traditional clothes to tourists. In fact, it's mostly Burmese tourists who buy the coils to wear for special occasions, she says. "Some foreigners and local people from Yangon come to buy them, but the majority of my customers are Kayan villagers who buy them to wear in traditional celebration events but not to wear for life."
As the tradition dies out, some say there needs to be a solution to preserve it. "We need a master plan for maintaining this cultural heritage," says Kyaw Than, an advisor at a Kayan cultural preservation group. "Giving jobs to these women at hotels is not a solution to maintaining the culture. We need suitable job opportunities."
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," she says. "This is our ancestors' cultural heritage. I want to protect this culture, but I could not say whether it will survive."