The former princedom of Shan today constitute the largest state in Myanmar, situated in the northeast of the country. Just behind Mandalay rise the first majestic foothills of the Shan Plateau, which can reach a height of over 2,000 meters (6,562 ft). This mountainous landscape is very beautiful, and the mild climate made the region very popular with the British. During the day it is pleasantly warm, but at night the temperatures can drop dramatically due to the altitude.
Tai, Dai, Shan
Another fascinating feature of this area is the number of different ethnic peoples that live in the state. The ethnic majority here is the population of four million Shan, though they actually call themselves Tai or Dai, the word 'Shan' having been derived by the British from Siam. Their close relatives, the Thais, often refer to the Shan as Tai Yai ('big Thai'), and the Shan call their land Muang Tai rather than Shan State. Like many other ethnic peoples, the Shan were driven out of their home in South and central China by the Tartars, and they migrated to South-East Asia. They settled in Myanmar, but later Myanmar kings and the Kachin drove them out of the north to the northern mountains. The Shan also settled in the north of Thailand, the Hanoi region of Vietnam, India's Assam and the Chinese province of Yunnan.
Until the mid-19th, the present Shan State was divided into principality. The Shan had a feudal system, with princes and princesses who lived in beautiful teak palaces (haw), from which they ruled over provinces of various sizes. The prince was called saopha, which means 'lord of the sky'. He was highly respected by the people, but if he himself broke the law he could be driven from office. Like their neighbours the Myanmar, the Shan also had a supreme monarch, the king, and at various points a Shan king even ruled over Bagan. However, there were frequent conflicts between the rival kingdoms in Myanmar. In the mid-15th century, some princes in the lowlands were forced to accept the authority of Myanmar kings, but the Shan peoples in the eastern plateau were virtually unaffected by this and were able to keep their traditions.
Under British Rule
During British colonial rule, the saophas were generally allowed to stay in power, but between 1922 and 1935 they gradually ceded their authority to a democratically elected parliament. After the military takeover in 1962, their status were completely removed. Today only the Palace of Nyaung Shwe, a few kilometers north of Inle Lake, is open to the public.
Ethnic Groups in Shan State
Today with the Shan, there are a large number of Wa, Pa-O, Palaung, Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Kokang and Intha living in this state. The second largest population is that of the Wa, who belong to the Mon-Khmer people and speak various dialects of the Wa language. An estimated one million Wa live on the Myanmar border with China and in China itself. Once they were greatly feared, although they lived in the remote mountains. The British adventurer Sir J. George Scott undertook the first perilous expedition to the Wa region in 1893, and until well into the 1970s the Wa were known to stick human heads on poles in order to improve their harvests.
The Pa-O are a branch of the Kayin, and migrated with them from central Asia. There are about half a million Pa-O now living in Myanmar, and other members of this people also live in Thailand. They have their own script and language, with six tones. Unfortunately, all their written records are lost, but it is probable that after their migration they established their first kingdom in Thaton, 130 kilometers (81 miles) east of Yangon, Through many dynasties, they lived alongside the Mon. Following wars with the Myanmar, Pa-O fled north and settled on Lake Inle, where they still live today.
There are also estimated to be around 100,000 Pa-O living in the region of Thaton, in Mon State. They are easily recognized by their striking costumes - the women's dresses and blouses are black or dark blue with fine, bright-coloured embroidery, and both men and women wear colourful turbans of towelling on their heads. The men's jackets and trousers are also dark blue or black.
Akha, Lahu, Lisu
The Akha, Lahu and Lisu are smaller ethnic groups who also live in the mountains of the Shan Plateau and speak a Tibeto-Myanmar language. The Akha belong to the lolo people, and there are more clans living in China, northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They have a strong belief in the spirits, have shamans, and build so-called 'spirit gates' outside every village to ward off the demons of the forest. The Lahu and Lisu live in Thailand, Laos and China as well as Myanmar, and, like most of the other smaller ethnic groups in Shan State, are for the most part animists.