The Kayan People

A photo of a girl with her mother, both are Kayan people, in northern Thailand.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

The Kayan People

The Kayan people are an indigenous tribe that populate a part of southeast Asia, primarily in Thailand and Myanmar. Sometimes, you’ll hear them referred to as Padaung, although that’s not preferred by the tribe themselves. 

The Kayan people that live in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand (and further north) most likely settled in the region due to the ongoing conflicts that took place in Myanmar in the 1980’s and 90’s. Among those that entered Thailand, there was a significant portion of them that wore ‘neck rings’ as we know them.

Neck Rings?

It’s interesting to note, that what we think of as ‘rings’ aren’t actually rings. It’s actually one long, continuous coil of brass. The coiling method allows for the concentric rings to change in diameter as required to accommodate the neck and collar of the wearer. Another misconception is that the ring, or coils, stretch the neck of the wearer. In fact, what happens is the collarbone and ribs are compressed downwards so that the neck appears longer. But the neck never really changes at all, it’s always the same. The coil is only removed occasionally, just to increase it as the wearer ages.

A photo of a young Kayan girl in northern Thailand.

Some people wonder what the point is, of wearing the neck coils. And over the centuries, many anthropologists have proposed ideas on the concept. Mythology suggests that the neck coils protect the wearer from tiger bites. Some say that the coils are meant to protect from slavery from other tribes because they would appear unattractive. And others suggest that the long necks help the women resemble dragons, an important figure in Kayan mythology. But when the women themselves are asked, they simply say that they do it because it makes them feel beautiful in their culture. 

A photo of a senior Kayan woman, with many neck rings indicating her age, in northern Thailand.
A photo of an elder Kayan woman, with many neck rings, in northern Thailand.

The women and children in these photos reside in a small camp about an hour outside of the city of Chiang Mai. Admittedly, the camp is really set up for tourism, and you can see how much the residents there are used to it. They quite willingly sit for pictures, and encourage tourists to buy their crafts. It may not be the best way to see and support the tribes, but it does provide a modest income for the women there. One does wonder how they would support themselves otherwise.

Photo Info:
All of these photos were shot in full shade, but with the addition of an off-camera flash in a handheld softbox. The flash/softbox was held up at camera left (you can see where the light is coming from), because I needed to hold my camera in my right hand. Ideally, if I had the flash mounted on a tripod, I could have positioned the light anywhere I needed to. But using a softbox provided a nice, soft, shadowless light.

If you’re interested in exploring the villages of northern Thailand where these Kayan People live, check out Private Photo Tours for some personalized photography experiences in Thailand and beyond.

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