From the Blog

June 2, 2017

Vanishing Tribes of Thailand – Tai Khuen

An ancient people who were forced from their homes to rebuild an abandoned city, in a neighboring Kingdom and who are fighting to keep their identity 

 

 

Over many centuries different tribal groups have settled in the North of Thailand, moving down from China, Myanmar and Tibet, to trade along the fabled Silk Road, making the region a melting pot of different cultures, beliefs and languages

The region was once ruled by the thriving medieval, Kingdom of Lanna, or “kingdom of one million rice fields” (13th to 18th centuries CE), which existed long before the rise of the kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

The resulting Lanna culture is a colourful combination of various elements brought together from both historic and multi-ethnic cohabitation. At its center lies the ancient Kingdoms capital; Chiang Mai which can trace its history back more than 700 years, making it one of the most historic cities in Thailand.

One of its least known inhabitants of the mountainous area, are the Tai Khuen; a small tribal sub-group of the Shan people, whose origins lie in the neighbouring Shan state of Myanmar. Unlike their new neighbours, the Tai Khuen didn’t gradually migrate into the area; they were brought to the region as war captives, by King Kawila of Chiang Mai in 1796, after he had taken control of the then Shan state of Kengtung. This mass forced repatriation (common during the period) was as part of the Lanna Kings, efforts to repopulate the city and areas around Chiang Mai which had been left deserted after years of war with the Burmese. The former ruling family of Kengtung State belonged to the Tai Khuen.

 

What’s in a name?

The Tai Khuen are also known as the Khuen, Kuan, Kween, Khween, Khouen and Kuanhua. The actual number of Tai Khuen in Thailand is not easy to judge, some reports state there are 100,000 in the Kingdom, yet there are only a few Tai Khuen communities in 4 districts in Chaing Mai, estimated at 5,000 people, while even smaller family units can be found in Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Phayao, Nan and Mae Hong Sorn.

The authoritative Ethnologue, which lists every known language in the world, doubts there are, indeed any Tai Khuen in Thailand! While the Christian religious site Joshua Project states there are only 14,000 in the world with 2,500 in the USA, (resettled after the Vietnam war), with the remaining living in Laos.

Khuen family names are taken from the names of sacred animals or plants. For their entire lives, the people are not to touch the particular animal or plant that bears their name.

 

Beliefs

While the people are predominately Theravada Buddhists, they also believe in spirit and ancestral worship. Worshiping ghosts and spirits is based on a hierarchy system, with the most important spirit being the spirit of the land, who is appeased daily with offerings of food and drink left at spirit houses.

On the full moon of June each year the people will worship the spirits of their village and ancestors with offerings of meat, fruit, flowers and rice at a special alter inside their houses.

A Khuen Wat is quite distinct from a Shan and a Burmese Temple. Gold stenciling on the inner walls and teakwood pillars are frequent in Tai Khuen viharas. Also noticeable features in Tai Khuen visual culture are the banners (tong) hanging from the ceiling in the monastery and the temple drums.

 

Lacquer Work in Thailand

In Thai lacquer-ware is called ‘Khrueang Khuen’ (Khrueang in this situation means ‘Works’ so states – Antiques, Crafts, Collectibles By Tanistha Dansilp). It is thought that the art was brought by the Tai Khuen people, to the region even prior to their mass resettlement.

 

 

Also known as “Kreung Khuen” lacquer ware has two principal functions. First, the lacquer is used for coating bamboo house ware in order to make them water resistant. Second, lacquer is used to decorate objects with expressions of traditional beliefs. From a variety of small objects carried on a person, too much larger objects such as furniture and even coffins. Before lacquering, the surface is sometimes painted with pictures, inlaid with shell and other materials, or carved. The lacquer can be dusted with gold or silver and given further decorative treatments.

 

The Future

The Tai Khuen are said to have a ‘deep and strong rooted culture’, who cling to their traditions as a way of preserving their cultural identity. Even today, the people proudly wear their traditional costume and speak in their own dialect, which is a Tai-Kadai language spoken in Eastern Shan State, Myanmar.

Unlike many of the Hill Tribes in the same region, the Tai Khuen have their own written language. Despite the complexities of the script, the literacy rates in Khuen are remarkably high for a minority language not taught in the government school system. (Evols Library)

 

 

With luck and help from visitors and the government these people will continue to grow and share their rich at times tragic past

 

More on the Hill Tribes of Thailand

The Hmong

The Karen

The Lisu

The Akha

The Lahu

The Padaung

The Mian

 

For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people of Thailand

A snapshot of the Phuan

The Haw in Today’s Thailand

The Yong and their Salak Yom Festival

Sea Gypsies

The Mon people

The Shan the forgotten Hill Tribe

 

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