Saturday, June 2, 2018

Overview of the Costumes of the Tai Peoples, part 2

Hello all,
Today I will continue my writing on the costumes of the Tai Peoples.
This article will cover the Lao-Phutai and Northwestern branches of the Southwestern Tai language family.

Lao-Phutai Group

Lao / Isan

This people traces its origin to the Kingdom of Lan Xang [Land of a Million Elephants], founded in 1354 by Fa Ngum. The Original capitol was at Luang Prabang.

The image at the head of this article is of a group of Lao women dressed in the Ventiane style. The Lao of Laos number perhaps 3 million, being just over half of the population, primarily inhabiting the Mekong river valley. A small number also live over the border in Cambodia, still along the Mekong river valley and tributaries. 

A large number of Lao also live in northeast Thailand, where they are known as Isan. These number about 20 million people. The current border dates from 1893, being the result of negotiations between the Kingdom of Siam and the French Colonial powers.

The Lao / Isan are shown in navy blue on this map

Much is made of the fact that these people prefer glutinous or sticky rice to regular rice.

The Lao / Isan women wear pha sin that are often made of silk ikat, or mat mi, as it is called in the Tai languages. They typically have a border, not too wide, at the hem, and a pattern distributed over the body of the tube skirt. At times it may be striped, but if so, the stripes are vertical. The waistband is often made of a separate piece.

In Xout Lao, the shoulder cloth, sabai or pha biang, often matches the pha sin. It was the original upper torso garment, as in Siam and Lan Na. Later on a wrap around jacket, called suea pat was borrowed from the Tai Lue. You may see these garments worn both ways today. In this image, the woman in the center is wearing a suea pat under the sabai, while the other two are wearing the sabai without it. The sabai match the pha sin, being made of figured silk with gold edging. The gold embellishment with dangling ornaments is typical of dress Lao outfits. In Ventiane, the topknot is worn in the center, in Luang Prapang, on the left. It often has a decorative band around the base.
The following images are from Laos.

Notice that the men above are wearing pha chong kraben. Isan men are more likely to wear the pha nung in sarong style, usually of plaid cloth. The following images are of Isan.

Here is a Lao dance concert

Here is a concert of traditional Isan music and dance by a group from Khon Kaen University.

Phu Tai

The Phu Tai live in central Laos, especially Khammouan Province, from which they also moved to scattered locations in northeastern Thailand. The language is distinct, and seems to be spoken by a couple hundred thousand people. In Thailand, they use their distinct language and culture to promote tourism to their villages. In Laos, they seem to be losing their traditional attire. Other Tai groups which are not closely related may also at times be referred to as Putai. I have been unable to find a good account of their origin, although it appears that at some time in the past, they traveled south from what is now southern China.

The Phu Tai like to wear blue pha sin and jackets, The shoulder cloth, pha khit, is highly decorated with woven designs. It is traditional for a bride to make and present an elaborate one to her mother in law, who wears it on special occasions, and it will eventually be used at her funeral. Here are a couple of examples.

 These two women are from Laos.

A video about the Phu Tai

Northwestern Group

Tai Lü

Also called Lu, Lue, Thai Lue, etc. The Han Chinese refer to this people as the Dai Le, or Xishuangbanna Dai. About 700,000 people speak this language. 
They trace their origin to the Independent Principality of Sip Song Panna. Like most Tai peoples they live in river valleys. Sip Song Panna lies in the valley of the Mekong river and adjacent tributaries in the southernmost part of Yunnan Province, and the current borders have separated part of this territory into adjacent areas of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.
The Tai Lü people still inhabit this area, but some have spread to isolated colonies in nearby parts of Vietnam and Thailand.

In this map, the Lue are shown in a grayish color at the top of the map.

Here is a closeup of the border regions, showing Yunnan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Again, the Lu are shown in slate gray.

Research of this people's costume is made difficult by the fact that the Han Chinese lump all of the speakers of Southwest Tai languages dwelling in China into one nationality, which they call 'Dai'. Many images are simply labelled 'Dai' with no reference to locality or language.

The costumes of this people are mainly black with ornamentation. The shoulder cloth, which is such an important part of the costume of more southern Tai peoples is not worn by the women. Instead they wear a type of wrap-around jacket called suea pat or suea pai. This is fastened by strings or strips of cloth at the sides. This has been adopted by the Tai Yuan in Lanna and the Lao in Luang Prabang, who have each added rich textiles as ornamentation and used it as court attire. The details of ornament vary with location.

The pha sin is typically black, with ornamental stripes on the upper part, of which the lowest is somewhat separated from the others, with the bottom generally left plain black. The stripes are woven on the weft, so they take two pieces and sew them together on either side.

The upper part of the pha sin often includes a band of kho, or tapestry weave. Other areas have a band of ornamental weaving of a different technique.

A turban completes the outfit.
Men generally wear plain black or indigo shirt and pants, but will wear a shoulder cloth with woven ornament, called pha chet for going to the temple and other formal occasions.
This man is from Ban Phaet, Chiang Kham district.

Here are some more examples.
From Thailand, Nan  district in Lanna.

These two people are from Chang Kham district,

These costumes are from Muang Ngoen.

This image is from Myanmar

Some images from Laos

This group of girls are from Ou Tai district, Phongsali province.

Some images from Vietnam


I have found only one image from Yunnan which is of this group.

Tai Lue dance

Huayao Dai

This is a group from southern Yunnan with a distinctive costume. The term Huayao Dai is Han Chinese, and is not their self designation. It means flowery waisted Tai. Some sources indicate that they live in Xishuangbanna, others that they live further north and east. If anyone has more precise information, please let me know.


A video from China about the Huayao  Dai.

Tai Nüa

It is probable that Yunnan was the original home of all the Southwestern Tai peoples.
The Tai Nüa live in river valleys of south central and western Yunnan Province, and slightly over the border into Myanmar. These people are also called Chinese Shan, Northern Tai, or Dehong Dai.

They form the largest non  Han ethicity in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture.

I have been unable to determine any distinctive characteristics of the attire of this group, since I have not found Chinese sources that give detailed information in English. There seems to have been recent fashion development under Han influence. Here are some images of the Tai from this region.

A video from China of a Dehong Dai dance.

Tai Khün

These people live in the eastern part of Shan State of Myanmar, in the former Kengtung State, which lay basically between the Salween and the Mekong. Kengtung was independent from about 1243 until its annexation by the British Empire. It is estimated that about 100,000 people speak this language today. This region lies north of Lan Na and southwest of Sipsong Panna.

If we take another look at this closeup map, the Tai Khün are represented by sky blue. Notice the Tai Lue to the east, in slate gray, the Shan to the west, in blue green, and the Tai Yuan to the south, in royal blue.

These people are often lumped in with the Shan in the literature. The men dress much like the Shan or the Tai Yuan, with loose trousers, shirts and a turban.

Aristocratic women dressed in a camisole and white pha sin, over which they wore a tight fitting jacket that flared at the waist, and a pha sin with gold and silk horizontal stripes woven into the upper part. Below that is a broad stripe with embroidered ornament, often including gold beads and sequins. Here is a photo of Princess Tip Htila of Kengtung taken in 1902. She is also seen above with some male retainers.


Here is a closeup of one such pha sin. As here, there may be a panel of tapestry type weaving included, as in the Tai Lü.

Some more images of this type of outfit. This first one shows a man in aristocratic garb as well. This has become the dress outfit of this people, at least for the urban ones.





 Here is an example of a simpler contemporary version. 


The outfit worn by villager, who are sometimes called Tai Ngan, is similar, but simpler, lacking embroidery and precious metals. The jacket [suea pat] is worn overlapped, and there are streamers attached to the sides. There may be hand woven ornament in the pha sin. The jacket is usually black, which would make it similar to the Tai Lue costume, but the Tai Lue in this area wear suea pat.


A video of Kengtung and the old rulers of it.

Tai Yai

Also called Shan, Tai Long in the southern areas, or Tai Mao in the north. They number 4 - 6 million, and mostly inhabit Shan State in Myanmar.They trace their presence in this area to the 10 cent, beginning with the kingdom of Mong Mao.They have been at times subject to the Bamar, and at times formed independent principalities, until being annexed to Burma by the British. There are also Tai Yai enclaves in northern Thailand.

The men wear shirts buttoned in the center or off to the side, loose pants and a turban. Here are some men dressed for the festival of Poy Sang Long, in which boys are brought to the Buddhist monastery to be initiated.

Both in the south and the north, women wear rather loose blouses that button either in the middle or off to one side, in various colors. The Tai Long pha sin tend to be rather simple, with horizontal stripes or plaid. A turban is a traditional part of the outfit.

Here are some Tai Yai women standing behind a row of Kachin women.


Plaid tends not to be worn much any more. The modern Tai Long pha sin have stripes only around the hips.


In this image, the two women are dressed in Tai Long style, while the little girl is in Tai Mao style.


Sometimes the top part is made of cloth with a small scattered pattern.

Tai Mao today wear a pha sin that has a panel in the middle with woven vertical stripes. In this photo the girl in the middle is wearing Tai Long dress, and the two on the sides are wearing Tai Mao attire.

Originally, the vertical stripes formed a wider panel low on the garment, with ornamented stripes at the bottom.

Another version of this garment features vertical appliqued strips of various materials, with or without embroidery or other ornamentation.

Today they generally insert a panel of striped woven cloth between two panels of some kind of plain cloth.

Here is one woman in Tai Long dress on the left, and the rest are in Tai Mao outfits.

A video of Tai Yai people dancing. Notice the great variety of contemporary costume


Also known as Hkamti, Khampti, or Lik Tai. These people live in the far northern parts of Myanmar, in Kachin State and Sagaing, where they number some 200,000, as well as adjacent parts of Assam in India, which they settled in the 1800's, and where they number some 140,000. 

Khamti dance

Tai Ahom

The Ahom people of Assam in India trace their origin to the Kingdom of Ahom, which was founded in 1228 by Chao Lung Siu-Ka-Pha, who came from Mong Mao. This kingdom was basically independent untill 1826, when it was annexed by the British into their Indian colony. Today they number almost 4 million, but the language is only remembered by a couple hundred priests. They still retain memory of their Tai origins.

These images were taken from the Tai Ahom facebook page.

Tai Ahom dance

This concludes my article on the peoples who speak the Southwestern Tai languages. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are other small Tai peoples who consider themselves distinct.

Thank You for reading, I hope that you have found this to be interesting and informative.

Roman K.


Source Material:
Queen Sirikit of Thailand, 'Satree Thai; Costumes of Ancient Thai Ladies', Bangkok,
Susan Conway, 'Thai Textiles', London, 1992,
Susan Conway, 'Silken Threads Lacquer Thrones; Lan Na Court Textiles', Bangkok, 2002
Gittinger & Lefferts, 'Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia', Washington, D.C., 1992,
Patricia Cheesman Naenna, 'Costume and Culture; Vanishing Textiles of some of the Tai groups in Laos', Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1990
Joachim Schliesinger, "Tai Groups of Thailand', Bangkok, 2001
Joachim Schliesinger, 'Ethnic Groups of Laos', Bangkok, 2003
Joachim Schliesinger, 'Ethnic Groups of Cambodia', Bangkok, 2011
Michael and Kim Howard, 'Textiles of the Daic Peoples of Vietnam', Bangkok, 2002
Prangwatthanakum and Naenna, 'Lan Na Textiles - Yuan Lue Lao', Bangkok, 1990
Nguyen Van Huy et al, 'The Great Family of Ethnic Groups in Vietnam', Vietnam, 2011
Dell and Dudley, 'Textiles from Burma', 2003, London
Maya McLean, 'Dress and Tai Yai Identity in Thoed Thai, Northern Thailand', 2012, Bangkok
Alexandra Green, 'Eclectic Collecting - Art from Burma in the Denison Museum', 2008, Honolulu
'Dress and Festivities of the Minority Peoples of Yunnan', 2004, China
Yos Santosombat, 'Lak Chang - a reconstruction of Tai identity in Daikong', 2001. Canberra
Deng Qiyao, 'The Folk Arts of Yunnan Ethnics', 1994