Padaung women and footwear in Thailand

Back in December 2013, I wrote about footwear in Thailand. I have visited Thailand again since writing that post, so I thought I would write another post about footwear in Thailand.

The majority of people in Thailand are Buddhist. Over 90% of Thai people identify as Theravada Buddhists. So it is a common sight to see Buddhist monks in Thailand. Additionally, it is desirable for Thai men to spend time being a monk at some point in their life. It is common for Thai men to be temporarily ordained, so they can be a monk for a few weeks or a few months, and return to secular life after that.

In Thailand, Buddhist monks are identified by their shaved heads and robes, usually in a saffron or maroon colour. The robes are simple, an imitation of Buddha’s dress. The humble robes are meant to represent the monk’s disinterest in worldly possessions in the pursuit of enlightenment. The usual footwear for monks are slippers or sandals, but when they are out collecting alms, monks will go barefoot.

This colour co-ordinated Buddhist monk wears saffron robes with matching socks and hat.

This colour co-ordinated Buddhist monk wears sandals, saffron robes with matching socks and hat.

In my last trip to Thailand, I went to Chiang Mai in the north west of Thailand, near the border with Myanmar (Burma). I was most interested in the hill tribes in this area. There are many different hill tribes in this region, each with their own culture. The tribe that I was most interested in are the Padaung people. The Padaung people are known by many names. They are also known as Kayan Lahwi, Karen and Karenni. Other less flattering names for the Padaung people are ‘long-neck women’ and ‘giraffe women.’ I am calling them Padaung because I asked a tribeswoman what her tribe is called, and she told me ‘Padaung.’

The Padaung people are most easily identifiable by the brass neck rings worn by the women. These heavy neck rings push the collarbones and ribs down, giving the impression of a long neck. Padaung girls start wearing these brass neck rings from around the age of 5. As the girls grow, the length of the brass coil is increased gradually. For young girls, the weight of the brass coils is about 2 – 5kg (4 – 11 pounds). For older women who have continued to add coils to their neck, the weight of the brass rings can be as much as 10kg (22 pounds).

A Padaung woman with neck rings weaves on a loom.

A Padaung woman wearing neck rings weaves on a loom.

When I was at the village, I tried on half size neck rings that weighed about 2kg . This is considered child size for Padaung women! It was extremely uncomfortable for me; the rings dug into my collar bones and made it difficult to turn my head. I had to take them off after 5 minutes. I don’t know how Padaung women can wear these neck rings for life,and I wonder how they wash their necks!

I think what surprised me during this visit to the village was that young girls were currently wearing neck rings. I had the mistaken belief that this was something only worn by older women of the tribe, and out of fashion among the young. I met two Padaung girls, who each told me they were 10 years old, and both were already wearing the neck rings of their tribe. Neck rings are seen as a symbol of beauty, status and cultural identity.

This 10 -year-old Padaung girl wears brass neck rings, silver bracelets, brass leg coils, footless socks and slippers, all traditional dress of her tribe.

This 10 -year-old Padaung girl wears brass neck rings, silver bracelets, brass leg coils, footless socks and slippers – all traditional dress of her tribe.

In addition to neck rings, Padaung women also wear coils on their arms and legs. Understandably it is the neck rings that have gotten the most attention because they are so different. Rings on the arms are worn from wrist to elbow, and brass coils on the legs can extend from ankle to knee. Some women also wear cloth coverings, which look like legwarmers or footless socks, on their legs. On their feet, Padaung women generally wear slippers or sandals.

For me personally, I hope that wearing the brass rings is truly a sign of cultural identity, and not just because it’s a means to earn the tourist dollar.