Early European traders setting up shop along the east coast of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, in what was then Siam and the region of Burma, were astonished to see the occasional highland woman attending market sporting a long collar of brass rings. In most cases, this simply looked uncomfortable, but one or two women had necks so elongated by the practice that their necks were no longer able to support their heads.
These were the Kayan women of southeastern Myanmar, who have since become most associated with this bizarre, but fascinating cultural practice. As Europeans began to probe deeper into the unknown portions of the world, however, they found many other cultures and societies also practicing a variation of this type of body modification, in particular in parts of sub-equatorial Africa. For example, the amaNdebele women of South Africa wear a less extreme version of the neck rings, which are typically a sign of wealth rather than body modification, although the gradual elongation is certainly a by-product.
It is, however, among the Kayan women of Myanmar where the practice is not only most widespread, but also most extreme. The way it works is not that different from artificial skull deformation, insofar as girls start the process at around the age of five, and coils are thereafter added incrementally. The physical effect of this is not so much to stretch the neck as to push the collarbone down, and in extreme cases, to malform the rib-cage, shifting both to a point some forty-five degrees out of normal placement. This causes a forward-leaning posture and a natural weakening of the muscles of the neck.
Apart from weakening the entire muscle structure of the neck and upper torso, the whole business is just uncomfortable and impractical, and to suffer that for a lifetime seems an enormously high price to pay for beauty. Nonetheless, the practice is still very much alive and well in Myanmar, and the Kayan and Padaung communities have since become something of a tourist attraction.