Along the border of Thailand and Myanmar live a small tribe known as the Paduang. With each new day they are greeted by both foreign and domestic tourists and are asked to strike poses for numerous cameras. Every year 10,000 tourists pay a small fee of 250 baht (Approx. US$6) to see the Paduang women and marvel at them. In turn, the tourists are allowed to mingle and photograph the girls and purchase some of their handmade trinkets. The reason for such an interest in these people lies in the bizarre custom of neck stretching that they practice -- one that was also on the brink of dying out not too long ago.

This custom involves brass rings around 1-1.5cm thick in diameter being wrapped around a girl's neck at the tender age of 5. At this stage the coils weigh as much as 6 1/2 pounds. As her neck grows, more rings are added, keeping the chin pressed up and the collarbones and ribs pushed down, giving the illusion of an abnormally long neck. In time the body adjusts and the girl can lead a normal life. She is, however, still barred from a few simple tasks, like looking up at the sky (the weight of the rings will overbalance her and she'll fall) or drinking from a cup (once again tipping her head back will make her lose her balance, and so a straw must be used). The coils have been described as constantly uncomfortable, even as one sleeps, but these women seem to feel the benefits are worth the disadvantages.

It is not clear how this tradition started, yet the Paduang claim they've always done it. There are several theories as to how the practice began. Some claim it was to protect the women from tiger attacks. Others say originally a girl was only destined to wear the rings around her neck if she was born on a Wednesday of a full moon. Then there is the myth about a beautiful long-necked dragon that was impregnated by the wind to create the very first Paduang people. Yet the tradition was passed on throughout the generations and the rings became a symbol of wealth and status, the long neck itself was considered beautiful. The custom became so important that purely the length of her neck would determine a girl's beauty.

Nowadays, the neck stretching is done mainly for commercial reasons. Families get their cut from the income generated by the tourists. Each girl who chooses to become a long-necked woman is paid 500 baht (about US$13) a month from tourist boat operators. Mothers encourage young girls to wear the coils for the financial benefits. In the past few years the trend has been changing and some girls are wishing to remain normal and go to university. These are the girls that would rather fit in with outside society, even if the popular feeling amongst the Paduang is that the rings are highly attractive.

The women are featured on tourism brochures and have turned their tradition into a successful money making business. And they like it that way. Since they started allowing people to visit, they have built a school and a medical clinic all thanks to the money brought in by tourists. They can now enjoy luxuries like televisions and refrigerators.

The ideal woman ends up with about 30-40 coils around her neck. And after a year or so of the rings being put in place, there is no turning back. The muscles in their neck become so weak that they simply cannot support the weight of the head anymore. Removal of the rings would result in suffocation. Old stories tell of the removal of the rings being a consequence of adultery. When a woman was proven to have been unfaithful she would have the rings cut off and be forced to either lie down or hold her head up with her hands for the rest of her days.

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