Sunday, March 22, 2020

Overview of the Peoples and Costumes of Myanmar, part 1; Bamar, Mon, Wa, Palaung, Shan, Khamti

Hello all, 
Today I will talk a bit about the various peoples and costumes of Burma, or Myanmar. 

First off, Myanmar is pronounced with only two syllables, in fact, the Bamar have always called their land 'Myanmar', but the British heard it as 'Burma'. Thus Mee-anmar is wrong, and so is Mie-anmar. The Y is pronounced as a consonant, not a vowel. Say Yanmar, and then add the M. /ˈmjɑːnˌmɑːr/ (About this sound listen)

The Union of Burma is made up of these founding groups: Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Bamar. This is acknowledged in the constitution, although not always followed in fact. This map shows the various divisions of Myanmar, some of which are called Regions and others States. States are regions in which the dominant ethnicity is not that of the majority. This map shows the locations of the States.

Most of the regional peoples are made up of many groups, but are often lumped together on the basis of geography, language and culture. This will be a very quick introduction to the various groups. Here is a very rough map of the languages and ethicities of Myanmar.


The Bamar are the dominant ethnicity of Myanmar, 68%, and often called simply Burmese. 
 They are represented by medium orange on the map above and speak a Sino-Tibetan language. They live mostly on the Irrawady plain and the coasts. The image at the head of the article shows Bamar women in modern costume. One notable feature of the wrap around hipcloths, longyi, is the curvilinear designs traditionally woven in the technique called luntaya acheik, or 'thousand shuttles'. This is essentially a very fine tapestry technique, and true handwoven luntaya acheik is very expensive.  This is often copied in other techniques, I recently saw one for sale in town that was done in machine embroidery. I have already written a more in depth article on this topic.

The men also knot a longyi around the waist, but in a different manner, and usually of plain or plaid cloth.

Bamar Court dance by women.

Traditional dance by Bamar men.

Austro Asiatic Speaking Peoples:


This map shows southern Burma and western Thailand. The Mon are shown in crimson.

The Mon are the oldest people in this region, and had a high civilization in what is now Myanmar and Thailand before the Bamar or the Thai arrived from the northeast. They are responsible for Theraveda Buddhism being the dominant religion of this area. Their language belongs to the Austro Asiatic language family and is related to the Khmer language of Cambodia, Vietnamese, and many tribal languages of Southeast Asia. They, along with other Austro Asiatic peoples are shown in pale blue on the map above. They live mostly in Mon State, and nearby areas, as well as in parts of Thailand. Many have been assimilated in past centuries.

A video of Mon girls dancing.

A Video about Mon culture, showing boys dancing in the middle.

Besides States and Regions, Myanmar also has 'Self-Administered Zones' and 'Divisions'. These are for the recognition of some of the smaller groups who live in more restricted areas. Here is a map which shows them. 


The Wa are another Austro Asiatic people, who live mostly in the Wa Self Administered Division of Shan State, and adjacent parts of Yunnan Province in China. Like the Mon, they have lived in the region for a long time, however, they are a tribal people who only recently gave up headhunting. They mostly follow a traditional animist religion, and few are Buddhists.Wa costume is mostly in red and black.


Here are some Wa girls doing the famous hair swinging dance.

 The Wa men dance as well 


The Palaung are a group of Austro Asiatic speaking peoples who live in the north part of Shan State, and adjacent regions of Yunnan Province in China. There is a  Pa Laung  Self Adimistered Zone, but many live outside it. They are also called Benglong, De'ang, Blang, and Ta'ang. There are other smaller groups, like the Riang who are related but speak distinct languages. 

 A video showing some of the traditions of the Palaung people.

Palaung girls doing a traditional dance

A Palaung fashion show followed by young people dancing. Accompanied by modern pop music. 

 Tai Speaking Peoples:


 All the resident Tai speaking peoples are called Shan by the Bamar. They include the Tai Yai, Tai Lue, Tai Mao, Tai Khoen, Tai Long and Khamti or Hkamti Tai. I have written a more in depth article on them here.  They live in extreme southern Myanmar, but otherwise mostly in Shan State and areas in the north in Sagaing Region and Kachin State.

 Each of the above mentioned groups wears a top and a tubular wrap skirt called Pah sin, but each ornaments it in a different way. See my article on the Tai peoples above. Here are some examples. The men tend to wear pants rather than sarongs as most Tai men do. 

Tai Lue


Tai Mao

Tai Khoen




Tai Yai, Tai Long


Videos of Shan dancing in various of the above costumes.

Khamti or  Hkamti Tai.These people live in the far north of Myanmar, and also over the border into India. 

Khamti dance video. 

I think I will stop here for now, and finish this topic in a second article.

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

Roman K. 

Source Material:
 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\

 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

Frank LeBar, et al, 'Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia', New Haven Ct., 1964
Susan Conway, 'Thai Textiles', London, 1992
 Richard K. Diran, 'The Vanishing Tribes of Burma', London, 1997
Unknown Author. 'Dress and Festivals of the Minority Peoples of Yunnan', Yunnan, 2004
Dr Florian Knothe et al, 'Embroidered Identities Ornately Decorated Textiles and Accessories of Chinese Ethnic Minorities' 2014, Hong Kong
Jim Goodman, 'The Exploration of Yunnan', Kunming, 2006
Unknown Author, 'The Costumes and Adornments of Chinese Yi Nationality Picture Album', Beijing, 1990
Deng Qiyao et al, 'The Folk Arts of Yunnan Ethnics', Yunnan, 1993
Chen Hongguang et al, 'Ethnic Costumes Clothing Decorations from China', Chengdu, Sichuan, 1995
Bernard Formoso, 'Costumes du Yunnan', Nanterre, 2013
Shan Ren et al, 'The Cream of Yunling - A Photo Odyssey of Yunnan Ethnic Groups', Kunming, 1998