The Thai name for the Shan people is Thai Yai, meaning great or big Thai. Indeed though possessing distinct cultural traits, a very separate history and inhabiting adjacent rather than overlapping regions, the Shan people are a part of the greater Tai* ethnic family — which also includes Lao, Tai Lu, Black Tai, White Tai and numerous other subgroups, including Chiang Mai’s Northern Thai.
Dialects are remarkably homogenous throughout these groups and there’s a chance a Shan would be able to make themselves understood (at least for the basics) to another speaker in the Tai grouping whether in Kota Bharu, Dien Bien Phu, Jinghong or Khon Kaen. Burmese Shan are of course heavily influenced by the Burmese language while Thai Shan have adopted many Thai words.
Shan, as with all Tai groups, originated in what is now Southeast China. They were undoubtedly formerly little distinguishable from Tai Dam, Lao and so on, though a millennium of relative isolation on Burma’s Shan Plateau has led to their cultural distinctiveness. Two differing views by ethnologists have the Shan either migrating westwards over the last thousand or so years from a common Tai staging post in Vietnam’s Dien Bien Phu region, or migrating directly southwards along the Salween Valley from today’s Yunnan province.
In Thailand it’s likely that Shan groups have inhabited the mountains of Mae Hong Son province for a long period of time and the “Siamese” or lowland Thai are relatively recent migrants to northern outposts such as Pai, Mae Hong Son town and Mae Sariang.
The sparse population in these rugged mountains has been considerably supplemented in recent times by Shan refugees escaping both the Burmese army and forcible conscription into the Shan State Army. Note also that infamous Shan warlord Khun Sa had his headquarters in Hin Tek village near Chiang Rai’s Mae Salong.
Indeed Khun Sa almost single-handedly built up the Golden Triangle’s reputation during the 1960s and 70s with his involvement in the opium trade and drugs wars with the rival Kuomintang (KMT). Mae Salong was one of the outposts where the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang Army was permitted to seek refuge after their defeat to the Chinese communists, Pai and Fang being others. (The CIA notoriously regarded the drug-funded private armies of both the KMT and Khun Sa as anti-communist bulwarks so turned a blind eye to their dealings — see the fascinating The Politics of Heroin by Alfred McCoy.)
Today Shan can be found across Mae Hong Son, in certain northern parts of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces and in both lowland towns and upland villages.
Thai Shan are mostly Buddhists, with elaborately roofed Shan temples a feature of many northern villages, and they are now very integrated into Thai society and culture.
You may see more recent arrivals with the Burmese ground bark face powder (thanaka) but they are otherwise clad the same and indistinguishable from their Thai neighbours.
Shan villages are sometimes included in trekking itineraries — it puts another ethnic group on the tick list — but visits are only really recommended if you have a good guide who can talk you through their fascinating history. Be warned that you won’t get pretty pictures of exotic costumes.
However if you wish to visit a Shan village by your own means, an easily accessible, very traditional and picturesque Shan village in northern Thailand is Mae Lana near Soppong in Mae Hong Son province.
*Tai refers to the wider ethnic group while Thai describes the inhabitants of Thailand.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 27th February, 2017.