The Tai Yai people of North Thailand

Table of Contents

The Tai Yai people: an introduction

The Shan people, also known or as Tai Yai ((Thai: ไทใหญ่), are a Tai ethnic group of Southeast Asia. They are the biggest minority group in Myanmar, making up about 10% of the population. Estimates of the number of Shan people in Myanmar range from 4 to 6 million. Most of them live in Shan State, which is the biggest state in the country. They also live in other areas of the country such as Kachin and Kayan States as well as the Mandalay region. There are Shan living in Yunnan province of China where they are called “Dai”. The Ahom people in Assam and Arunpradhes States in India are also considered Shan.

Laos has a small Shan minority group as well. Thailand has a large Shan population. In Thailand, they are also known as Ngio or Ngiauw (Thai: เงี้ยว) in Tai yuan language. Just as the Thai people the Shan originally migrated from Yunnan in China. Tai Lue, Tai Khün and Tai Nuea are subgroups of the Shan people.

women at a market Shan People
Shan morning market at Piang Luang

Tai Yai or Tai Luang

“Yai” or “Luang” means “big”. Tai Yai or Tai Luang means “big Tai”. This seems to refer to the fact that the language group is bigger than the Thai-speaking population. The Thai and Lao languages belong to the Tai-Kadai language group. This is a group of tonal languages, to which also belong the Tai Lue, Tai Khün, Tai Ya and other languages. That is the only explanation I can find of the name “Tai Yai”. The term “Shan” originates from Burma and is derived from the term Siam, the former name of Thailand. It means that the Burmese acknowledged that the Tai-speaking people within their borders are the same people, who live in Siam.

The Thai language and the language of the Tai Yai people are mutually unintelligible. Also, the alphabets are significantly different. I can read and write Thai but can’t make anything from the Tai Yai alphabet. Also, the Tai Yai and Tai Lue languages and alphabets are different.

Young boy with head dress Tai Yai people
Young Shan novice during Poy Sang Long

Tai Yai Language

The Tai Yai or Shan Language is spoken in Burma and Thailand. I speak and understand the Thai language but Tai Yai is very different. I don’t understand one word of it. It might belong to the same language group as the Thai language but that is academic.

It is also a tonal language but the tones are not the same as in the Thai language. The alphabet is totally different from the Thai alphabet and resembles the Burmese alphabet, from which it seems to be derived. It is unclear how many Shan speakers there are: estimates range between five and fifteen million. How many can read and write the Shan language is unknown. The below video provides a short introduction to the Shan or Tai Yai Language.

Shan State in Burma

According to sources, the Shan people dominated much of Burma from the 13th until the 16th century. By the 16th century, their power waned and they became vassal principalities of a Burmese kingdom. By that time there appears to have been more than 30 small Shan states. In 1886 the British empire annexed Upper Burma, including the Shan States. Consequently, the people in the Shan States became British citizens.
By 1910 the border between Burma and Siam was clearly demarcated in North Thailand. The consequence was that there were Shan people living on both sides of the Burmese-Siamese border. In Siam, they primarily live in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces, areas which were very isolated a hundred years ago.
Two boys in colorful dress
Poy Sang Long

The Federated Shan States

Under British colonial rule, the Shan States enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. The list of separate states is simply mind-boggling. Each state had its hereditary ruler. In 1922 the British created the Federated Shan States,  uniting all these small entities with the neighboring Karenni States. During World War Two, Japanese troops occupied part of the Shan States. Thai troops annexed Kengtung and surrounding areas, with Japanese permission. This area is called Saharat Thai Doem (“original United States of Thailand”). After the war, British troops occupied the Shan States while Thai troops retreated to Thailand.

Traditional textiles Tai Yai people
Shan textiles in Piang Luang

The Panglong Agreement

A year before Burma gained independence the national hero Aung San met with leaders of the Kachin, Shan, and Chin ethnic minorities at Panglong town in Shan State. As far as the Shan people are concerned they obtained basic democratic rights and the right to secede in 10 years in a future united Burma. This conference took place in January 1947. Burma became independent a year later. 

In 1950 Chinese Nationalist forces invaded Shan State after their defeat by the communists under Mao Tse Tung. The fifties were a period of turmoil and fighting between the KMT and Burmese forces. In 1962 a military coup under General Ne Win meant end of democracy in Burma and more or less the annulment of the Panglong agreement. The military regime of Ne Win didn’t respect the democratic rights of the Shan People which fuelled a Shan rebellion that already had started in 1958. This armed struggle continues until today.

Women with bamboo hat Shan people
Shan woman during a festival

Shan traders and forestry workers in Siam

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Shan people settled in Chiang Mai, Lampang, Phrae, and other provinces. Many of them were British subjects or registered as such and held privileges attached to that status.

Some were traders and others were employed by the British teak companies such as the Borneo Company and the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Some of them became respected citizens and assimilated into Siamese society: they funded temples such as Wat Sri Chum and  Wat Phra That Mon Cham Sin in Lampang.

Staircase to temple Burmese heritage lampang shan people
The Naga staircase leading to the temple, 2020
Temple building Tai Yai People
The viharn of Wat To Phae

The culture and traditions of the Shan people

The Tai Yai or Shan people have a different language but that is not all. Most of them practice Theravada Buddhism, like most Thai people, but the design of their temples shows Burmese influences and “Shan-style”. The most conspicuous is the design for the roof with the multiple layers of roofs. Shan people have their own traditional dress and their own specific dishes.

The most eye-catching and photogenic Shan festival is Poy Sang Long, which is an ordination ceremony. This usually takes place at Shan temples at the end of March and the beginning of April. I took most of the pictures on this page during Poy Sang Long events at Wat Ku Tao and Wat Pa Pao in Chiang Mai.

Monks shaving novices
Shaving heads of future novices at the Poy Sang Long Ceremony, Wat Ku Tao

The Shan population in North Thailand

It is very difficult to give an estimate of the number of Shan people in North Thailand. We have to make a distinction between the Tai Yai people in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces and the migrant workers in cities across the country. Someone once mentioned an estimate of more than 200,000 Shan people living in Chiang Mai province. Most of the Tai Yai people in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces probably have been living there for decades or even longer. Mae Hong Son, the capital of the province, is the center of Tai Yai culture in North Thailand. Another significant Tai Yai town is Therd Thai in Chiang Rai province.

Noodle soup and food
Shan-style noodles at the morning market of Mae Hong Son
Wooden Temple
Wat Nantaram in Chiang Kham

Shan temple architecture

I love the Shan temple architecture. It’s very different from Thai temple architecture and very recognizable. Most eye-catching is the roof of the monastery and of other buildings, which is multi-layered. The Buddha statues are Burmese style as well as the interior decoration. The ceilings in Shan temples are delicately decorated with multi-colored glass mosaics.

Most Shan temples show Burmese influences. The Shan temple Wat Mon Puyak in Lampang, for example, had a pyatthat style spire in the past. The most well-known Shan temples are Wat Jong Klang and Wat Chong Klang in Mae Hong Son, Wat Chom Sawan in Phrae, and Wat Nantaram in Chiang Kham. Another beautiful Shan temple is the Wat Thung Pong in Pai. During the Green Trails tour “The Great Doi Inthanon to Pai Adventure” you will visit Shan temples in Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam.

Sources of this article

I have visited Shan temples and villages and attended the Poy Sang Long ceremony a number of times at Wat Pa Papao and Wat Ku Tao in Chiang Mai. I personally know several Shan people in Chiang Mai.

Some of the sources I used for this article:

Several pages of Wikipedia

Joachim Schliesinger, Tai Groups of Thailand, vol.2, Profile of the existing groups, Bangkok, 2001

Archibald Ross Colquhoun, Amongst the Shans, New York, 1885

A Comparative study on the architectural characteristics of 19th and 20th-century shan monasteries in Southern Shan State of Myanmar and Northern Thailand, Yu, Yu Thwin, Chiang Mai University, 2008

History of the Shan State from its origins to 1962, Sai Aung Tun, Bangkok, 2009

Man posing at temple
Frans Betgem in front of the Phra Upakhut shrine at Wat Muang Pon, Khun Yuam district
Shan-Burmese style temple
Wat Thung Pong
Shan style roofs
Wat Piang Luang

Shan people and temples feature in these tours