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North Thailand People


Tai Yuan Lady, Chiang Mai


The Tai Yuan People In Thailand

  • The Tai Yuan or as they call themselves, the Khon Muang or peoples of the principalities dominate the irrigated rice lowlands of Upper North and the Provinces of Tak, Sukhothai and Uttradit in the Lower North. Their language is distinct and referred to as Kam Muang . Its script is traditional Indic script which is Mon derived compared with the Siamese script which is Khmer derived. Kam Muang differs from Siamese in Indic use, tone use and vocabulary.
  • The Khon Muang history in Thailand commences in the 13th Century when the Khon Muang left Southern China and infiltrated Upper North assimilating with the local tribes, the Austro-Asiatic Mon and Lawa. Khon Muang culture has absorbed many Austro-Asiatic traditions, particularly respect for spirits. The Lawa buffalo sacrifice tradition is but one example of such integration


Tai Yuan Beliefs

  • The Khon Muang, like all Tai tribes, still hold the influences of pre- Buddhist times such as territorial spirits, special rites for death, marriage and the new year and the concept of ‘’ khwan’’ or life force or psychic energy elements.
  • Influences from India include Theravada Buddhism introduced by Sri Lankan Buddhist monks originally to the Mon who then dominated Upper North.
  • Additionally older Indic beliefs such as those concerning the influences of celestial bodies (astrology) (one is not necessarily in control of one's destiny but influenced by the stars), and the need to make offerings to supernatural entities, the Indic Indra, the Lokapola, guardian deities of the cardinal directions and to navagraha, the nine planetary deities.


  • Thirdly, there are the cultural influences of the Lawa they absorbed. The Khon Muang world includes spirits or phii. The creation of Lan Na and its history is the story of the Tai Yuan following their migration from China to the Upper North of Thailand.
  • The Tai Yuan have their own sense of style and design. This is reflected in their clothing, arts and crafts, all of which is part of the appeal of the North.
  • Khon Muang culture differs from that of the Tai of Sukhothai as Sukhothai culture was influenced by the Pegu Mon and the Khmer and its successor, the Ayutthaya Kingdom which also was significantly influenced by Khmer culture and beliefs, whereas Lan Na was a merging of the Tai Yuan with the valley tribes of the Austro-Asian Mon of the Haripunchai Empire.



Tai Yuan Art Style


  • Khon Muang, or “People of the Principalities”, is the name most commonly applied by the people of northern Thailand to themselves. In times past they have been referred to variously as the Tai Yuan a name now considered to be somewhat derogatory, and therefore no longer in favour and also, somewhat misleadingly, as the “Northern Lao”.
  • Sometimes, indeed, they were referred to as Lao phung dam, or “black-bellied Lao”, as the northern men tattooed themselves, in contradistinction to the lao phung khao, or “white bellied Lao” of Laos and the Northeast, who by and large eschewed this practice. In fact, the Khon Muang are a Tai people (by convention, the spelling “Tai” is used to define the larger group of Tai-speaking peoples, whilst the spelling “ Thai ” denotes a citizen of the Kingdom of Thailand).
  • They are closely related to the Lao of northeast Thailand and Laos, the Shan of Burma, the Tai Lu of Sipsongpanna in Yunnan, and of course the dominant Siamese of Central and Southern Thailand. Like Tai peoples everywhere, they prefer to inhabit fertile lowland regions where they can practice their traditional lifestyle, the intensive cultivation of wet rice in irrigated paddy fields.
  • The Thai term khon simply means people thus Lao people, for example, would be described as khon Lao in Thai. But what of the term muang, which has been translated above as “principality”? In fact, the term muang is complex, and can be applied to describe a city or urban centre, a region, or even a country. 
  • When used in reference to the Khon Muang, or people of north Thailand, the sense most generally evinced is that of small fiefdoms or principalities. The roots of this lie in the distinctive topography of Northern Thailand, so different from the flat central plains or the high plateau of the arid northeast. 
  • North Thailand is lush and green, an upland region of forested mountain ranges and hidden valleys. In times past, before railways and surfaced roads were driven through and across the hills, the fertile valleys were cut off from each other in a very real sense, so that it might take days or even weeks to walk or ride on pony or elephant back from one muang to another. In this way, people became identified with particular valleys, each of which was administered by a local chao or lord, from his provincial capital. These might range in size from major towns like  Chiang Mai, the main city of the north and the capital of the former  Lan Na Kingdom, to smaller centers such as Lamphun Nan and  Phrae
  • The inhabitants of these isolated principalities that is, the Tai-speaking, lowland rice farmers, as opposed to the various hill peoples who inhabit the intervening mountain ranges, differed from each other sufficiently to be able to recognise each other by accent, or sometimes by style of dress, as citizens of different Muang people of Chiang Mai, or  Lampang, or  Chiang Rai, for example. But that which they shared a common tongue, known as kham muang, or the “ language of the principalities ”, their lifestyle, cuisine, clothing, and above all their Buddhist faith united them as a single, cohesive, readily discernible people. They were, and are, the Khon Muang, the “ People of the Principalities ”. Today, as northern Thailand becomes increasingly prosperous and sophisticated, and as links between the various “ principalities ” continue to expand and improve, a new sense of what it means to be Khon Muang is emerging, and the people of the north are rediscovering and celebrating their unique cultural identity. 
  • Which leads us, naturally, to define the area North Thailand inhabited by the Khon Muang. In past centuries frontiers were less rigid, and certainly more permeable than they are today. At the height of its power and influence, in the mid-16th century, the Lan Na Kingdom stretched far to the west of the present frontiers of Thailand, deep into what is now Shan State.