February 13, 2024 | Kaddy Gibson

The Kayan People, The Tribe That History Got So Wrong


Meet The Kayans

Of all the indigenous communities in Southeast Asia, the Kayan people stand out for their distinctive neck coils that have captivated the imagination of tourists all over the world. But that's only one aspect of their fascinating culture. 

Let's learn more about the Kayans. 

kayan people

Where Do They Live?

The Kayan people, also known as the Padaung, are part of the Karen ethnic group. 

They are originally from Myanmar, but conflict with the military regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to many Kayan leaving to find safety in Thailand. 

Today there are approximately 200,000 Kayan people living in Myanmar and Thailand.

Padaung or Kayan woman - 1984Linda De Volder, Flickr

Their Neck Coils

One of the most visually striking aspects of Kayan culture is the tradition of neck elongation. Starting at age 5, women of the Kayan tribe adorn themselves with brass coils, which creates the illusion of elongated necks. 

The coils don't actually stretch the women's necks, but rather, the weight of the coils pushes the collarbone down.

The Long Neck Women of Myanmar - 2016Alex Berger, Flickr

Why Do They Wear Neck Coils?

Some anthropologists have suggested that Kayan women began wearing neck coils to make them unattractive to other tribes and reduce their chances of being taken as slaves. 

Some have also suggested that the coils are meant to make women look more slender and attractive to men.

Long-necked women of the Kayan(padung) tribe ethnic Karen. - 2014[email protected], Flickr

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Why Do They Wear Neck Coils? (cont'd)

Another suggestion is that the neck coils were to make women look like dragons, which are important creature in Kayan folklore. A more practical reason for wearing the coils may have been to protect against tiger bites.

But if you ask most Kayan women, they say they wear the coils because its related to their cultural identity and makes them look pretty.

Loikaw, Myanmar – 10th October 2019: Visit to the Kayan or “Long Neck Karen” ethic group.Jakub Specjalski, Shutterstock

Do They Take Their Neck Coils Off?

Kayan women rarely take their neck coils off and will usually only do so during medical examinations. It takes a long time to put on a coil and long-term use often causes the women's necks to become bruised or discolored. 

Most women also come to feel like the coil is part of their body, so they keep them on.

Karen hill tribe woman wearing the traditional neck rings in the Huai La Development Karen Village - 2019PiercarloAbate, Shutterstock

Kayan Longhouses

The Kayan people traditionally live in longhouses, which are communal dwellings that accommodate multiple families under one roof. 

True to their names, they can be quite long, with some of the largest extending up to a kilometer long.

Interior Of A Kayan Tribal House - 1896Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Kayan Tattoos

Kayan women often engage in the ancient art of tattooing. The tattoos are known as "g'num," and the intricated designs are worn on their hands and forearms. The g'num symbolize beauty and strength.

Kayan women legs tattoo - 1912W. H. Furness 3rd, Wikimedia Commons

What Do Their Clothes Look Like?

The Kayan people take pride in their vibrant traditional clothing. Women wear colorful woven fabrics, and men often don distinctive colors, too, which reflect their cultural heritage.

Kayan Tribe Woman Mae Hong Son - 2015Shane Smith, Flickr

What Are Their Spiritual Beliefs?

The Kayan people maintain a deep connection with their ancestors via the practice of ancestor worship. They use rituals and ceremonies to honor the departed and believe their ancestors guide them through life.

Kajan Dajaks people at Borneo - 1920Tropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Their Origin Story

The Kayan also practice a traditional religion called Kan Khwan. According to this theology, the Kayan people were created by a union between a female dragon and man who was human/angel hybrid.

TWO KÈKAWNGDU WOMEN MAKING PURCHASES IN THE KAWNG-I BAZAAR: BURMA - 1922Sir George Scott, Wikimedia Commons

What Do They Believe In Now?

In the 19th century, Italian missionaries made contact with the Kayan. Today, many Kayan people practice Roman Catholicism. 

Buddhism and Baptist Protestantism are also common among the Kayan, but a large portion of the population still follows traditional Kan Khwan beliefs.

INSTRUCTING KAYAN YOUTHS IN THE JUNGLE - 1912Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

Passing Down Stories

The Kayan do not have a written language. They use oral traditions like storytelling and songs to pass on their history. 

Elders play a crucial role in passing down stories, myths, and cultural knowledge to younger generations.

Two Padaung women in traditional dress and with metal rings around their neck - 2019, Myanmar.GUDKOV ANDREY, Shutterstock

Kayan Art

The Kayan are renowned for their incredible weaving skills. Not only is this used to create their clothes, they also weave bags and other textiles that are adorned with symbolic patterns representing their community.

Ma Pang weaving a scarf in Huay Pu Keng - 2019Fair Tourism, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Music And Dance

Music and dance are key to Kayan celebrations and rituals. Traditional instruments like drums and bamboo mouth organs often accompany lively dances that pass on history or marks milestone in the lives of community members.

Masquerade of Kayan Dayaks - 1896Leiden University Library, Wikimedia Commons

Kayan Farming Practices

The Kayan people practice traditional slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for their crops. Crops such as rice, corn, and vegetables are staple foods in Kayan communities.

USONG, A KAYAN YOUTH OF UPPER CLASS, SON OF TAMA USONG. - 1912Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

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Kayan Festivals

The Kayan people observe various festivals throughout the year, but the Kay Htein Bo Festival is the most important. During this three-day festival which occurs every spring, the Kayan dance around a maypole and make offerings of pigs and cows to usher in a good harvest.

The Kayan People at festival - circa 1920Tropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Basket Weaving In Kayan Communities

Basket weaving is a particularly important Kayan craft. The intricate, durable baskets they make have many purposes, from mundane storage containers to ceremonial uses.

KAYANS SPLITTING RATTANS FOR MAT-MAKING. - 1912Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

Their Marriage Customs

Kayan marriage ceremonies are seen as uniting not just the couple but also their families. To initiate proceedings, men send their parents to ask their prospective bride's family for her hand in marriage. 

If the woman's parents agree, the man will give her an engagement token in front of the whole village. This symbolizes his commitment to her.

Skull trophy, Kayan woman dancing with the head of an enemy.Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Kayan Wedding Day

Kayan weddings take place in the longhouse and people from neighboring communities are usually invited. 

During the ceremony, the couple will hold a ceremonial sword, as the bridesmaids circle them eight times with a sun hat. This is meant to symbolically protect the newlyweds from the sun and rain.

Woman from Kayan tribe on Lake Inle - 2019PennyLane24, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Kayan Wedding Day (cont'd)

After the ceremony, people celebrate the marriage with a night of dancing and feasting. Rice wine is staple at Kayan weddings, and everyone must have a taste to celebrate the bride and groom.

Kayan Old Lady in Pan Pae village, Myanmar. - 2019MarenHumburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Choosing The Right Partner

Among the Kayan, people must marry someone they are genetically related to. Marrying a first cousin is seen as best, with marriage between different generations being viewed as taboo. 

Not following these rules is seen as a bad omen and believed to cause misfortune for the newlyweds and their relatives.

Woman of the Kayan people with decorative neck rings working at her loom. - 2009CEphoto, Uwe Aranas ,Wikimedia Commons

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Kayan Shamans

Kayan Shamans are known as "bomoh", and they hold a revered position as spiritual leaders and healers. Shamanic rituals involve communicating with spirits and using traditional herbal remedies to cure illnesses.

Sarawak: Laki Bo, a native Kayan tribal chief.Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Their Burial Traditions

The Kayan people have unique burial traditions in which they place the deceased in elevated huts called "salong". These huts are about ten meters high.

Kayan tribe burial poles & hut, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.Norman Ong, Shutterstock

The Council Of Elders

Traditional Kayan villages are governed by a council of elders. Important decisions about a community are made collectively by the elders, based on consensus.

Loikaw, Myanmar – 10th October 2019: Visit to the Kayan or “Long Neck Karen” ethic group.Jakub Specjalski, Shutterstock

The Importance Of "Kiau"

The Kayan value the concept of "kiau," which emphasizes community responsibility and helping one another. This concept fosters a supportive environment where individuals actively contribute to the well-being of the entire community.

Padaung women Myanmar - 2008Johannes Zielcke, Flickr

What Language Do They Speak?

The Kayan people speak various dialects of Padaung Kayan. Each dialect reflects the unique history and geographical location of different tribes.

Kayan tribe family.Uwe Ommer, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

 

The Kayan In The 21st Century

As is often the case, the industrialization of the 21 century has led to the Kayan having more interactions with outsiders. 

To try and find a balance between maintaining their cultural heritage and fitting into the modern world, many Kayan promote initiatives like sustainable tourism and cultural exchange programs.

Portrait of two Kayan Lahwi tribe women with neck rings. Long neck woman. - 2019Eskymaks, Shutterstock

Preserving Their Culture

Efforts are underway to document and preserve Kayan cultural knowledge. 

Kayan communities are involved in educational initiatives, including recording their oral histories, documenting traditional practices, and promoting cultural awareness to outsiders and tourists.

Two Kayans in Borneo - 1925Tropenmuseum, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Symbolism In Kayan Art

Symbols play a significant role in Kayan art, with each motif carrying cultural significance. The unique symbolism in Kayan art pieces reflects the community values, beliefs, and identity of the artist.

Padaung or Kayan woman - 1984Linda De Volder, Flickr

The Role Of Kayan Youth

Kayan youth are playing a big role when it comes to preserving their cultural heritage. Young Kayan are at the forefront of many of the educational initiatives that seek to encourage positive interactions with tourists and record the oral traditions of Kayan communities.

A portrait of a young girl from the Padaung tribe (Karen) who are famous for wearing large brass coils around their neck. - 2016David Evison, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The Kayan people continue to captivate the world's imagination. From the iconic long-necked women to their intricate arts and rituals, the Kayan have found a way to balance their ancient traditions with the challenges of the modern era. 

Their cultural heritage is not just a relic of the past but a living entity that is a testament to the spirit of indigenous communities.

Padaung women - 2008Johannes Zielcke, Flickr


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