YANGON — Deep in the forested hills of eastern Kayah state, the statuesque “long-necked” women of Myanmar’s Padaung tribe have worn coils of bronze around their necks for generations, a traditional sign of beauty now largely kept alive as an attraction for curious tourists.

The agony of beauty for Myanmar's 'long-necked' women.

The agony of beauty for Myanmar’s ‘long-necked’ women.

Beginning as early as five years old with up to 10 rings, girls stack on a new band approximately every year until adulthood in a practice that painfully compresses their shoulders and collarbones, rather than actually stretching their necks.

A grown woman can wear as many as 25 rings, weighing a total of five kilos (11 pounds). About 30 women and girls in Panpet still maintain the tradition, most of whom spend the majority of the year in neighbouring Thailand, earning money by selling souvenirs and appearing in the holiday snaps of fascinated tourists.

The women live in a special tourist attraction village, earning around 3,000 baht ($90) a month, which gives them the cash to upgrade their own homes.

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But critics have compared the Thai compounds to “human zoos” that use Padaung women — referred to as “giraffe women” — as camera fodder for gawping holidaymakers and encouraging the continuation of a restrictive practice that has been compared to Chinese foot binding.

It is not entirely clear how the women of the Padaung came to adopt the custom.

Local legend has it that women began wearing the rings to protect themselves against attacks by tigers, who once roamed the region in large numbers and bite the necks of their prey.

Traditionally men in the village also used to wear face-shaped masks on the backs of their heads as a defence against the big cats.

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But villagers told me that no men now wear the masks, while fewer and fewer women keep the neck ring tradition.

Families often cannot afford the costly, handcrafted rings while many young girls feel they would be an impediment to getting a job in towns and cities.

There are also concerns about the discomfort of wearing the bands, which force them to look always straight ahead. The women can remove their rings with the help of a specialist and their shoulders and collarbones can eventually return to normal.

Those living in Thailand go back home once a year for the Dakontai Festival, the most important time for the tribe to worship the spirits. — AFP