The Shan are members of the Tai family, also having migrated from China with the Lao and Khon Muang. The Shan [ or Tai Yai ] predominantly live in the Shan State of North East Myanmar which adjoins Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Provinces in the Upper North.
In Thailand, in some areas such as Mae Hong Son, the Shan make up the majority in numbers of the local population [ having founded the town in the 1830's ].
In North Thailand the Shan have a strong presence in Chiang Rai, Lampang, Mae Sariang and in Chiang Mai City.
The distinctly Shan part of Chiang Mai City is to be found at the Sri Phum-Chang Puak area surrounding the Shan Temple of Wat Pa Pao on Mani Nopparat road. It has distinctive Shan art and architecture as shown in the images below. Here one can see Tai Yai monks, Shan styled gateways, Shan script and calendars, Shan clothing and fashion, art and crafts, Shan newspapers and Shan traditions.
Shan culture has been conditioned and modified by the Shan's close affiliations with the Mon civilisation of Burma [ Myanmar ].
Chiang Mai’s Shan Revival
The Shan known in Thai as Tai yai or “Great Tai” represent the western branch of the Tai family of peoples, and are closely related to the Khon Muang of northern Thailand Not all Shans live in Burma’s 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, reminiscent of Burma and of Shan State, have long excited the curiosity of visitors to Chiang Mai and the north.
The Shan ordination ceremony of Poy Sang Long, held in Mae Hong Son each March or April, is also a popular attraction.During the latter half of the 19th century Shan people 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 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 northeast of the old, walled city in the Sri Phum Chang Puak 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 Gila 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 Gila Road, between the Chiang Yeun chedi and Wat Pa Pao, live descendants of Chiang Mai's Shan community.
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 more than a hundred 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 dozens 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 more than sixty years. Celebrations go on for several nights, with Shan food served to the accompaniment of traditional Tai Yai music, dancing and songs.
During these celebrations 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 Chaem, 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 often to be seen.
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.