Palong Hill Tribe - History and Culture
Table of Contents
The Palong (Thai:ปะหลอง) hill tribe who live in Thailand came from Myanmar (Burma). The name Palong or Palaung originated in Burma. We will use the spelling “Palong” on this website as this is the word that Thai people use in general. Palong refers to Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples living in the mountains of Shan State and Southern Kachin State in Myanmar. Culturally and Linguistically, the Palong consist of three main groups: the Shwe, the Rumai, and the Pale. The Shwe people are also known as golden Palong or Ta-ang. The Pale people are known as Silver Palong or Di-ang. These two groups of Palong people identify themselves as Dara-ang (ดาราอั้ง). Our former partner Haute Culture Textile Tours made this video for us:
Where do they live?
It is likely they originated in Southern China and later migrated to Myanmar. There are approximately 600,000 Palong living in Myanmar. Palong communities are present throughout Shan State and southern Kachin State. They live in Shan State from Namhkam in the north, near the Chinese border, to Muang Mit and Namhsan in the west, to Kalaw in the southwest, and the east Kengtung near the Thai border. The Palong who live in the north of Shan State’s mountain areas are called Shwe or Golden Palong by the Burmese and the Shan. A small number of Palong people, about 12,000, live in the Dehong region in Yunnan Province in southwestern China.
The Palong people migrate to Thailand
Between 1982 and 1984, groups of Palong people crossed the border from Burma into Thailand. Points of entry were Doi Angkhang and Tachileik, amongst others. They escaped fighting between Burmese government forces and rebel armies. About 200 Palong entered at the border crossing where now the village Noh Lae is. They came from an area, called Doi Lai, which is only about 15km from Doi Angkhang. The Lahu people at Kob Dong village and the Chinese at Ban Khum encouraged the Palong to meet King Bhumibol Adulyadej when he visited the Angkhang Royal Agricultural Project in 1982. They asked permission to stay in Thailand, which the King gracefully granted. Then they founded the village Noh Lae, which is still there.
The Palong people meet the King
Nai Mo Mon Heng was one of the Palong leaders, who met the King in 1982. Here is his story of that meeting:
“I’m Nai Mo Mon Heng, I came from Doi Lai in 2525 (B.E.). (We) stayed along the border barbed wire fence. Thai soldiers asked whether we’d like to stay in Thailand. We said ‘yes’ but the soldiers said that we could not stay, it’s not right. “That’s o.k” I said. Then, Luu Sang of Khum village, told us to stay and wait for HM the King’s visit. HM the King came.
The Palaung women presented him with traditional dresses and we offered him seven antique Buddha images. We asked for his permission to stay in Thailand. We told him all about our sufferings. HM the King asked us what tribe we were.
I answered “Palaung sir, and there are no Palaung in Thailand.” HM the King asked around whether there were any ethnic Palaung in Thailand. Some said “yes”. “Are you Karen?” -“No, we’re not Karen.” “Are you Shans?” – “No, we’re not Shans, we’re Palaung sirs.”
The King grants permission to the Palong to stay in Thailand
Nai Mo Mong Hen continues:
“Finally, one of the foreigners who used to be a soldier and fought with the Japanese (in Burma) said that there were no Palaung in Thailand and HRH Princess Sirindhon confirmed that there were no Palaung in Thailand. Thus, HM the King granted us the right to live in Thailand. He asked us about our beliefs. “We’re Buddhists, sir.”
There were monks and novices among us, so HM the King gave us 5,000 baht to build a shelter for them. Finally he said “where are we going to have them stay?” – I said “I do not know” – “Wherever this road ends, let them settle there” was HM the King’s word.”
I don’t know who the foreigner was who used to be a soldier. Above story comes from the article “Ethnicity and the Dara-ang (Palaung) in Thailand” from K.Sujaritlak Deepadung, Associate Professor of Linguistics at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, Mahidol University, Bangkok.
The Palong Hill Tribe in Chiang Dao
Some Palong were allowed to stay at the border, but other groups had to move to other areas. There are now Palong villages near Fang, Wawee, and Mae Sai (Chiang Rai province).
In Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai province, there are now four Palong villages: Mae Chon, Pang Daeng Nai, Pang Daeng Nok, and Huay Pong. There are eight Dara-ang villages in Chiang Mai Province – No Lae, Huay Cha-nu, Huay Mak Liam villages in Fang; Mae Chon, Pang Daeng Nai, Pang Daeng Nok and Huay Pong in Chiang Dao; and Huay Sai Khaw in Mae Ai. The total Palong population in Thailand is approximately 4,500-5,000.
The Palong people in the Chiang Dao area are mostly Silver Palong. They call themselves Dara-Ang. The women are recognizable by the silver waistband.
The Palong Language
The Palong or Palaung language belongs to the Palaungic branch of the Mon-Khmer subfamily of the Austroasiatic language family. People speaking languages of this group are spread throughout Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, South China, Bangla Desh, and India. This implies that Shan State in Myanmar and not Tibet or China is the homeland of the Palong people. More than 30 languages are in the Palaungic branch. Three of them are Palaung languages: Rumai, Golden Palaung, and Silver Palaung. I have found no evidence of written language. Here are some helpful sentences and words:
What is your name?
Where are you from?
How old are you?
Hai moo dtuh
Sai mai djuh?
Moo mae ta?
Ong lives in the Dara-ang village Mae Chon in Chiang Dao district, north of Chiang Mai. She teaches us counting from 1 to 10 in Dara-ang language.
Life in the Palong community
The Palong (Dara-ang) people in Chiang Dao district are farmers. They grow mountain rice, corn, beans, and other crops. There are a lot of different fruit trees and plants in and around the village such as longan (lamyai), mango, lemon, lime, pine apple and lychee. They might have grown opium before in their homeland but I have never seen any evidence of that.
Some villagers work part time at a fruit canning factory in Chiang Dao and do other odd jobs on request. Tourism has been a source of income for at least the past ten years. There are at least five different home stays that use to receive guests. However, since the closure of an elephant camp nearby in 2012 the villages get fewer visitors.
Palong Hill Tribe Traditional Textiles
Many of the Palong women still wear traditional dress daily. Their clothing is very distinct and recognizable. The women are excellent weavers. For a couple of years, tourists have been visiting the Chiang Dao district to learn about traditional textiles. We have successfully organized several textiles tours in the past. We can arrange a weaving workshop in the village Mae Chon upon request. If you are interested, please contact us. We also offer a photography tour in which the traditional dress of the Palong people features. Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours took these pictures for Green Trails.
The Palong traditional dress
The dresses of the Palong women, together with rattan or bamboo and silver waist hoops, make them very distinctive from other ethnic groups. However, the traditional dress of the men is like that of the Shan people. Also, both Palong women and men carry shoulder bags as part of their traditional dress. Women, both adults and young girls, weave their own cloth using a backstrap loom. They weave cloth for their tubeskirts (glang) and shoulder bags (hu). They buy material from the market for blouses (salop) because it is soft and has bright colors. The color of the tubeskirts is usually red – dark red or crimson for the elders, bright red for the young.
They also weave cloth to make shawls, scarves and shoulder bags for tourists. Almost all of the women wear their ethnic costume in daily life. The adults wear their tubeskirts up to their chests and wrap around a piece of white cloth, then they put blouse over the tubeskirts. The young women and girls wear it around their waists and put t-shirts under the blouses. Women use commercial towels as their headwear instead of the traditional headcloth (kamai).
The waist hoops
The most significant symbol of Palong identity is the waist hoops. They believe that the hoops are symbols of animal traps related to a legend about a Dara-ang ancestor: the angel “Roi Ngoen”. Roi Ngoen is the name of an angel who comes down to earth with her sisters. She is caught by a Lisu hunter who uses hoops to trap her. Since the Red Dara-ang are descendants of Roi Ngoen, they have to wear waist hoops to remind them of Roi Ngoen and to protect themselves from bad things.
These hoops are made of bamboo or rattan. Usually, Red Dara-ang wear three kinds of hoops: the first one is a coil of thin black lacquered hoops called “nong vong”. The second kind. “nong ren” is made from bamboo with vertical red stripes and is wider. The third is a silver-colored hoop with nice patterns which is called “nong roen”. This silver hoop is usually made of aluminum or some cheap silver- colored metal, not of real silver.
We support the local community
We have organized trekkings in the Chiang Dao district for many years. Mostly homestay owners have benefitted from tourism but it trickles down to other villagers as well. We organized textile tours to the village Mae Chon and hope to restart this activity soon.
In the villages local people sell souvenirs. Not all these souvenirs are made in the village. Local weavers produce beautiful textiles. We support the local weavers as much as possible. It not only generates some cash income but will also help the preservation of the traditional Palong textiles.
Interesting links and other sources
For more information on books and other sources on the Palong and other ethnic minorities of North Thailand, check out this page.
We highly recommend this excellent book on the Palong hill tribe, their culture, their history, their migration to and settlement in Thailand: ‘The Palaung in Northern Thailand’. It is written by Michael C. Howard and Wattana Wattanapun and published by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai (ISBN 974-88325-1-1).
Meet the Palong people on Green Trails tours
On these Green Trails tours you can meet the Palong people:
Two day tours
Green Trails Tribal Experiences