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Chiang Mai’s Shan Connection

Chiang Mai’s Shan Connection

Thailand’s Colourful Poy Sang Long Festival

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By Andrew Forbes

Mention minorities in Thailand and, for most people, images of Akha, Hmong and other hill tribes, southern Malay-speaking Muslims, shy forest-dwelling Sakai, and mysterious Chao Thalae – the "Sea Gypsies" of Phuket – will to come to mind. Phuket is hands down one of the best places to visit while in Thailand. Not only do you get to hear about the mysterious Chao Thalae from the locals but you also get to take advantage of their perfect beaches. It isn't hard to find a Phuket hotel for a good price since the currency value is a lot lower. Another, urban-dwelling people, well-integrated within Thai society, who also stand out are the Chinese. These long-resident denizens of the Middle Kingdom are immediately apparent through their unmistakable script, the cohesiveness of their clan-based society, their confidence, business acumen and relative wealth.

Other less visible, but nonetheless generally recognised minorities include the Vietnamese of Isaan, the South Asians of Pahurat (and virtually any cloth market anywhere in the country), the Souai of Surin and Sisaket, the Mons of Kanchanaburi and Pak Kret, the Khmers of Aranyaprathet and Ratchaburi, and the Karens of the western frontier.

Yet in addition to such clearly-defined minorities, many less readily recognised peoples combine to make up the national tradition we tend simply to classify as "Thai". In central Thailand, beside the dominant Tai-Syam, these include the Lao Viang, Lao Puan and Lao Song, whilst in the north the Tai Yuan of Lanna, the Tai Lu' of Sipsongpanna, and last but not least the Tai Yai, or Shan, of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son must also be considered.

All these peoples belong to the larger Tai cultural and linguistic group, which stretches from Assam in India to north-western Vietnam and from Southern China to Kelantan in Malaysia. As Tais, speaking a cognate language, with related spiritual beliefs and a tradition based primarily on wet-rice cultivation, they blend more easily into modern Thai society than non-Tai minorities like the Chinese and the Malays. For this reason Tai minority peoples – like the Shan – often tend to disappear, readily subsumed within a greater Thai cultural whole.

In times past, Siamese government policies tended to favour such cultural absorption. Captured Tai peoples from Laos and Burma were carried back to Siam and resettled in under-inhabited regions to strengthen the frontiers of the Siamese state. Tai prisoners of this sort were particularly trusted, being given better land and more rights than such untrustworthy non-Tai captives as Khmers and Malays. Intermarriage, too, was easier and more frequent, so that gradually many Lao and Shan communities all but forgot their original ethnic identities.

Two important factors in this building of a greater "Thai" identity were poverty and insecurity. In an authoritarian society dominated by the Tai-Siam, other Tai peoples benefited materially by adopting Siamese characteristics and "fitting in" to the system. For example, government jobs were easier to come by for speakers of central Thai who abandoned their distinctive minority clothing and customs.

Moreover, as a motivation for becoming Siamese, insecurity worked both ways. In their attempts to develop Thai national consciousness in the mid-20th century by building a new nation (sang chat),  Thai nationalists like Phibun Songkhram and Luang Wichit Wathakan emphasised the central Thai values of Bangkok at the expense of the periphery. Tai separate identities – whether Lu' or Puan, Yuan or Shan – were definitely out of favour.

Over the past 20 years, however, as moves to democratise Thai society continue to make slow, painful yet steady advances, attitudes have begun to change. Higher levels of education and increasing personal and national prosperity are also important contributory factors. In times past it paid to be as Siamese as possible. Nowadays, by contrast, it often pays to bring out Tai separate identities. Tourism is certainly a factor – today's newly affluent travellers don't want to see uniformity, but diversity in culture and society, especially now that Thailand is indeed well and truly established as a unitary state, with threats of secessionism in abeyance even in the traditionally fractious Muslim south.

One interesting consequence of these developments has been a resurgence of cultural and ethnic interest in their Tai minority roots amongst peoples like the Lao Puan in central Thailand, the Tai Yuan of the Northern provinces, and the Tai Yai, or Shan, of the Northwest. Interesting parallels exist elsewhere, of course. In the United Kingdom, for example, more Scots speak Gaelic now than fifty years ago – though those who speak Gaelic as a first language have all but disappeared. This is because in a relatively wealthy, post-industrial society Scots increasingly have the time, inclination and educational facilities to rediscover their past. Similarly, at the other end of the same kingdom, Cornish – once a dead language – has seen an unlikely rebirth for precisely the same reasons.

The question arises, "will we see a similar phenomenon emerging here in Thailand as Thai society becomes wealthier, more democratic and more confident?" Happily, the answer is almost certainly "yes".

An interesting contemporary example of confidence, security and increasing wealth leading to a resurgence of interest in Tai ethnic origins may be found in the Shan, or Tai Yai, of Chiang Mai. Normally associated with Burma's Shan State, Tai Yai – "Great Tai" – represent the western branch of the Tai peoples, inhabiting an area which lies roughly between the Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers, with the cold and treacherous Salween running through the Shan heartland.

Not all Shans live in Shan State, however. In Mae Hong Son – once considered Thailand's most remote province – Shans make up the majority of the population, and their distinctive architecture and clothing is apparent both in the provincial capital and in Mae Sariang to the south. Mae Hong Son town was originally founded by Shan settlers from the west around 1830, and was not fully integrated into modern Thailand until well into the present century.

Probably because of their remoteness from Bangkok and their high demographic presence, the Shans of Mae Hong Son Province are confident, culturally secure, and very sure of their place in the scheme of things. Like the central Thais they are devout Buddhists (albeit with more than a touch of animism included), and their flourishing temples, redolent of Burma and of Shan State, have long excited the curiosity of visitors. The Shan ordination ceremony of Poy Sang Long, held in Mae Hong Son each April, is also a popular attraction.

Yet Shan people are not just to be found in Mae Hong Son. During the latter half of the 19th century they migrated throughout northern Thailand, working mainly in the lumber trade and as skilled mahouts, or elephant masters. During this period Shan communities were established in Chiang Rai and Lampang provinces, as well as in Phrae, where some amongst their number participated in the "Shan Rebellion" of 1902 – the last act of overt rebellion against Bangkok to have taken place in northern Thailand.

Shans also settled in some numbers in Chiang Mai province, both in small urban centres like Mae Chaem, by Doi Inthanon, in the west, and at Mae Rim, to the north of Chiang Mai itself. Both towns retain a strong Shan presence today.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a Shan community also developed in Chiang Mai. Today the descendants of these settlers are still to be found living in a distinctly Shan area to the north-east of the old, walled city in the Sri Phum – Chang Pheuak area. The heart of this area, and of the Tai Yai community in Chiang Mai, is the old Shan temple of Wat Pa Pao on Mani Nopparat Road. Here, in a tranquil and picturesque setting evocative of old Shan State, Tai Yai monks and novices pray, study and relax in the shade of crazily-tilted Shan-style gateways and time-warped walls. Signs in Shan script and calendars and publications produced by Shan presses both in Thailand and across the border in Shan State show that here, at least, the old traditions of Tai Yai culture are maintained.

Nearby, in the grounds of Wat Chiang Yeun on Sanam Kila Road, a large, ochre-coloured octagonal chedi in bad need of repair shows clear signs of Shan influence. All along the east side of Sanam Kila Road, between the Chiang Yeun chedi and Wat Pa Pao, live descendants of Chiang Mai's Shan community. Here too, directly opposite the Chiang Yeun chedi, is Lung Nyo's small, clean and popular Shan Restaurant, serving some of the best Khao Soy, Khao Tom, Nam Ngiao, and Shan sweets in town.

Until recently few of Chiang Mai's permanent residents were fully aware of the presence of a thriving Shan community in the commercial heart of the city. Wat Pa Pao is, after all, just one of almost 100 Buddhist temples in the metropolitan area, and it is set well off the main road, so that it is possible to walk or drive past hundreds of times without being aware of the unusual architecture or signs in Shan script.

Recently, however, prompted by a resurgence of interest in Shan traditions and by an increased feeling of cultural confidence amongst the community, Chiang Mai's Shan inhabitants have reintroduced the Poy Sang Long ordination ceremony in the city after a hiatus of sixty years. Celebrations go on for several nights, with Shan food served to the accompaniment of traditional Tai Yai music, dancing and songs.

Meanwhile the luk kaeo, or "crystal sons" – young Shan boys about to be ordained – are accommodated in the large viharn at Wat Pa Pao. Many of these novices travel to Chiang Mai from surrounding Shan communities at Mae Cham, Mae Rim, Chiang Dao and Fang. In times past all would have made the journey to Mae Hong Son for ordination, but Wat Pa Pao's re-establishment of the Poy Sang Long tradition ensures that in future years Thailand's Shan community will have two major centres for ordination. Now that an example has been set, other Shan communities may follow suit.

During Poy Sang Long the novices are elaborately arrayed in make-up, jewellery and traditional Shan clothing to resemble celestial princes. They are then carried to the ubosoth, or ordination building, on the shoulders of their fathers or elder brothers, or sometimes on horseback. This is an elaborate and gorgeous ceremony, performed with much pomp and circumstance. Golden umbrellas shield the novices-to-be from the rays of the sun, and the tears of proud mothers are sometimes in evidence.

In future years Poy Sang Long is certain to become a major attraction for visitors to Chiang Mai, enriching the city both in cultural and material terms. It is to be hoped that this will come to the attention of the present Burmese rulers of Shan State, where many Tai Yai traditions – including writing and publishing literature in the Shan language – are currently discouraged. Cultural diversity is, beyond question, a treasure and a basic right to be preserved and encouraged. In Chiang Mai's burgeoning "Shan Revival" both Thailand's Tai Yai community, and the Thai authorities, are showing the way to the future.

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Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media