One of the treasures of any country is its people. In this respect Myanmar, particularly the east with its rich and diverse ethnic minorities, is well endowed. One of the most striking of these groups is the Padaung. Natives of Kayah State the Padaung are seldom seen in the lowlands and, if they appear at all, tend to congregate around the provincial town of Loikaw near the border with Thailand.
Although the Padaung, a Mongolian tribe who have been assimilated into the Karen group, only number about 7,000 they have attracted a great deal of interest because of their practice of neck-stretching. The custom is more than just a rare and strange expression of feminine beauty, the number and value of the rings confers status and respect on the wearer's family.
In the past Padaung girls were fitted with the rings at the age of five or six. The day chosen for this ritual was prescribed by the horoscopic findings of the village shamans. The neck was carefully smeared with a salve and massage for several hours, after which a priest would fit small cushions under the first ring-usually made of bronze - to prevent soreness. The cushions were removed later on. The process would continue with successive ring being added every two years. A Padaung women of marriageable age will probably have had her neck extended by aboui 25 cms.
These severe decorations express the Padaung women's own concept of beauty and social ranking but there are other theories concerning the origins ofthese rings. It has been claimed that rings were first placed around the women's necks in order to make them undesirable to slave traders. A Padaung legend explains that the rings were protection against tiger bites, a constant hazard in their homeland in the north of China.
Unlike normal accessories, these rings are for life and may only be removed with the direst of results. Adultery among Padaung women has always been punished by the removal of the rings, a fate almost literally, worse than death. This is an unusually cruel punishment as the cervical vertebrae has become deformed after years of wearing the rings, and the neck muscles have atrophied. Unless she wishes to risk suffocation the unfortunate wife must pay for the infidelity by spending the rest of her life lying down or try to find some other artificial support for her neck.
Bronze and silver bracelets also cover the womens legs and arms, a custom likely to remain. The neck rings however, may very well become extinct within a generation or two as younger Padaung women are beginning to refuse to fit the rings around their children's necks.