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Thailand for beginners

The country in a nutshell


Published on: 2nd September, 2011

The Palaung are not to be confused with the similar sounding Padaung, or the famous “long-neck” Karen whose status in Thailand is that of refugees from Burma. Many of the Paduang have been settled in rather dubious “tourist villages” in certain parts of Northern Thailand where “partnerships” between Thai businesspeople and villagers mean fees are charged to tourists for entering their villages (or refugee camps) where women, encouraged to wear neck rings, sit around being gawked at and photographed by tourists, while insufficiently exotic “regular” Karen refugees are unceremoniously shoved back over the Burmese border. Yes, a minimal amount of cash may even find its way to the Padaung themselves, but the system has a distinct human zoo feel in our opinion.

Palaung woman all dressed up and ready to go to market

Palaung woman all dressed up and ready to go to market.

Anyway, the Palaung! Interestingly, though they appear to be another of the colourfully dressed Sino-Tibetan hill-tribes found across northern Southeast Asia — along the lines of Lisu, Akha, Lahu and so-on — the Palaung are actually part of the Mon-Khmer ethnic group. They therefore, in all likelihood, inhabited this region before the Burmese, Thai, Lao and even Shan peoples migrated into this part of Asia.

Mon-Khmer groups are still found right across Southeast Asia from southern China, northern Vietnam and Burma right down into the jungles of southern Malaysia. Today Mon are concentrated in western and central Thailand, (Kanchanaburi province in particular) and Burma’s Mon State, with Khmers obviously in Cambodia, and southern Isaan. In other regions groups were pushed into remoter areas by migrating Malay, Tai, Burmese and Vietnamese peoples (for example the Mabri, many of Vietnam’s Central Highlands Montagnards such as the M’nong and several Orang Asli groups in Malaysia are ethnic Mon-Khmer.)

Vietnam's M'nong - distant rellies of the Palaung?

Vietnam's M'nong: distant rellies of the Palaung?

Anyway back to the Palaung, who are found across a wide swathe of Burma’s Shan and Kachin States; in Yunnan (where they are known as De’ang); and now even as far south as northern Thailand. They are relatively recent migrants to the latter area and still low in numbers but several villages can be found interspersed with the Black Lahu and Akha of Chiang Mai‘s Fang district where they have become popular stops on trekking routes. Thai groups are of the Pale, or Silver Palaung group, and traditionally live on mountain slopes building bamboo longhouses for several families. They are traditionally keen opium growers though Fang villages now grow tea, coffee, cabbages and so on, with beans and pulses being more popular than with other hill-tribe groups. Default religion is animism but some Burmese Palaung are Christian and other groups, including Fang ones we saw, Buddhist.

Monks in Palaung village nr Fang

Monks in Palaung village near Fang.

They are known as ‘silver’ Palaung because of the trademark wide silver belts they like to wear over their tube skirts and bright tops. (Any colours seem to go, but a lot of red is in evidence).

Burmese Palaung woman in her finery

Burmese Palaung woman in her finery.

Above is a Palaung woman near Pindaya, Burma, who was fascinated to see my pix of her Thai cousins and while agreeing they were probably Pale did point out several differences in costume, probably only immediately evident to a Palaung embroideress!

Palaung, woman Fang with finger on the pulse!

Palaung woman Fang with her finger on the pulse!

So there you have the Palaung, one of Thailand’s smaller, yet certainly interesting and colourful hill-tribe groups.

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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