The Long Neck Karen of the Golden Triangle – I was born in the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh, Pa., named as a result of the intersection of three major rivers. This Golden Triangle contains the Three River Stadium, home of the Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. In March, 2006 I had the unique opportunity to travel to the “other” Golden Triangle defined by the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand. This Golden Triangle is home to a unique culture of hill tribe people known as the Padaung, well known as the people with long necks or the giraffe-necked women, sometimes referred to as the Long Neck Karen.
For me, the most interesting part of my new Golden Triangle experience was to spend a day with a beautiful 26-year villager from the tribe of the Long Neck Karen. Her beauty came from not just her good looks and captivating personality but from the large number of brass rings used to elongate her neck. For the men of the Karen tribe, long necks of the females of the village represented sheer beauty.
Posing with a beautiful 26-year old member of the Long-Neck Karen culture that are sometimes referred to as the giraffe women.
My new 26-year old friend was named Manam Modred, mother of 3 and the most skilled of the village weavers. This is a phonetic spelling of her name since she could not write it in English although she could speak it quite fluently. This amazed me since the females of the Long Neck Karen tribe were not permitted to leave the village. She “picked up” her conversational ability just by talking to English speaking visitors that were interested in her weaving. Last month she even negotiated the trade of a hand woven scarf for a well used Casio digital wristwatch, something she always wanted but was well beyond her financial means. Her life’s desire is to have a new bamboo home for her and her three children, a goal that will someday be realized through sales of her hand woven products.
My new friend, Manam Modred, mother of 3 showing her skills as one of the village’s most skilled weavers. Learning English from previous visitors, I was able to communicate with her to find out first-hand about the lifestyle of this unique hill tribe people.
The great attraction of the their culture is the extraordinary jewelry still worn by most of the women. According to their traditions, a special ceremony is performed for a girl at 5 to 10 years of age when she puts on the first five rings. The older rings are added in the later years. One woman of the village wears 37 brass rings around her neck but typically there are between 20 and 25 rings. They wear the brass neck rings not only for decoration and beauty but also because of their beliefs, The Padaung myth states that a long time ago, the spirits were angered with the people and sent a plague of tigers to eat the women. For fear of the women being killed, the ancestors suggested that all of them wear the brass rings to protect themselves. Another myth tells of a beautiful dragon with a long neck that was impregnated by the wind to produce the first Padaung people. In any case, the only time the neck rings are removed is during their mid-teens when they are fitted with a larger set that will remain in place the rest of their lives.
A photograph given to me by my friend Manam Modred showing her with brass neck rings removed for the very first time. Immediately after the photo was taken she was fitted with a larger set of rings that she will wear for the rest of her life.
While myth possibly explains the neck rings, many Long Neck Karen females also wear rings on their forearm from wrist to elbow and on the legs from ankles to knees. These are generally covered with clothes but Manam raised her skirt to show me her leg rings. It was not a pretty sight since the tight brass rings caused blackened skin and chafe abrasions on her lower legs. I knew then that “beauty” and pain were one.
A photograph of all the Long Neck Karen or giraffe The brass rings that do not actually stretch the neck
women wearing brass neck rings in the village. but push down on the ribs leaving no damage to the skeleton.
Several years ago a medical researcher took X-Rays of a 43-year-old giraffe woman who has worn brass rings for 38 years. Although many people claim the rings stretch the vertebra to lengthen the neck, but that’s impossible since it would lead to creeping paralysis. The trick to make the neck look longer than usual is simply achieved by pushing down the ribs. The ribs of a normal human grow almost horizontal but with the brass neck rings they slope down by 45 degrees. The brass spirals they wear do not rest on the collarbone as often thought, but on the ribs providing constant pressure. This pressure is a result of the weight of the rings, which can be as much as 25 pounds, and the tension between the head and shoulders. The result is no damage to the skeleton but the available space that is gained by pushing down on the ribs gives the impression that the neck has been lengthened. So, the secret of the giraffe women has finally been revealed.
As I discuss her life in the hill tribe village with Manam, it becomes evident to me that the life of these people has not been an easy one. Although the Karen-Padaung occupied central Burma before the Burmese arrived from the North, they fled to the Thailand area of the Golden Triangle as refugees and economic migrants. Their own folk history speaks of them as orphans with over two hundred folk stories preserved through their oral history. My future plans include a return to the hilltop tribe of the Long Neck Karen later this year to hear more of these unique stores as told by the my new English speaking friend - an adventure I am greatly looking forward to.