People of Myanmar – Meet the Shan minority
If there is one ethnic group you are almost guaranteed to encounter during a Myanmar holiday it is the Shan: they are the most numerous of Myanmar’s ethnic groups with an estimated 6-7 million people and the Shan State covers more than 25% of the landmass of Myanmar. They have a rich history and culture so we’ll use this blog article to explain a bit more about this group of people.
The Shan have lived in Myanmar for more than 1000 years. For the first 500 years of that period, most kings were Shan or of Shan ancestory but in the 1500s, King Bayinnaung- of the Bamar ethnic group- conquered all of the existing Shan States and it continued to be ruled by Bamar kings after that. However the kings still needed the support of the Shan and allowed them to retain some since of autonomy as long as they leant man power and other necessary services in war time. Thus during colonial rule, the British had trouble exerting control over the Shan and left them to be largely independent with their saw bwa’s (local lords or chiefs) in power. To this day you can still see some saw bwa palaces in the Shan State.
Even these days the Shan rely primarily on agriculture for income with rice being the most important crop. Other items such as soy beans, chilies, garlic and peanuts. Tea and coffee are also grown and only recently an entrepreneurial local has started to export some of the best coffee beans. The soil in most of the Shan State is extremely fertile making it one of the more naturally wealthy regions of the country.
Their traditional dress is very similar to that of the Bamar- for ladies a pha sin (long skirt) and matching top while men tend to wear wide, loose-fitting trousers and a cotton tunic or shirt. At festivals or celebrations, the Shan perform unusual dances reflecting stories of life or of Shan folklore. Some of the dances are quite difficult and require years of study to perfect. The dances are accompanied by an orchestra which is mostly percussion. The Shan use a long drum which is worn across the body with a shoulder strap.
The Shan are proud of their culture and heritage. All over the Shan state you will see their flag displayed- very similar to the National flag with a band of yellow, green then red but instead of a star at the centre, the Shan flag features a circle. They are also extremely keen to show visitors more about their lifestyle and culture- this may be by inviting you for a cup of tea, to see their house or even join in a local ceremony such as a wedding or full moon festival.
EXPERIENCING SHAN CULTURE:
- Shop– The Shan are excellent craftsmen and their items make for great souvenirs or gifts for friends and family. Hand or loom woven textiles are some of the most popular items as they are stylish, easy to back and come in a variety of designs including scarves, longyis and shoulder bags. The intricate bamboo baskets they produce are lovely but a bit more difficult to carry home. Paper items such as umbrellas and lanterns made from the pulp of the mulberry tree are also good traditional items to take back home.
- Visit– Fortunately it is very easy to travel to the Shan State. The most popular destination is Inle Lake and the neighboring towns of Kalaw and Pindaya. More remote, the northern Shan State towns of Kyauk Me and Hsipaw offer fantastic trekking and motorbike trips while the southeastern town of Kengtung is a good Shan State stopover if traveling overland from Thailand.
- Eat– Shan cuisine is the favourite of many travelers. Relying heavily on fresh vegetables and pastes made from tomatoes and peanuts rather than fish and shrimp, the food is generally lighter and less salty than that of other ethnic groups. Some of the ‘must tries’ include for breakfast Khao Sway, a noodle salad tossed with garlic, peanuts, tomato salsa and coriander and tofu nway , a thick concoction of liquified chick-pea tofu, noodles and spices. Lunch and dinner features a healthy serving of rice and several salads (tomato, carrot and eggplant being the most popular) with a stuffed fish or meat fried with shallots and tomato sauce. You certainly do not have to travel to the Shan State to try these dishes as they are served throughout the country. In Yangon, Shan Yoe Yar is ideal for a Shan feast or head for something more simple like Nan Htike, a street-side venue serving up authentic dishes. In Mandalay, Shan Ma Ma and Aye Myit Tar are excellent options and located across the street from each other!