Home Insider Culture The Golden People or the Shans

The Golden People or the Shans

S han are members of Tai ethnic group (Siamese branch of Indochinese people) to which Thais and the Laotians also belong. The term Shan may have come from Siam, derived from Sanskrit (Pali) word Syama, which means “golden” or “dark” colour, referring to their skin colour. Although Shan refers to themselves as Tai, they were known by a few different names, such as, “Thai Yai” in Thailand, “Dai” in China, Tai Ahom in the Northeast of India and “Shan” in Myanmar and to the western world.

Shans are largest ethnic group in Myanmar. Most ethnic Shans live in Shan State in eastern Myanmar with smaller Shan communities also living in Kachin State in the north and in China, Thailand and Laos, bordering Shan State. There are many other smaller ethnic groups living in Shan State as well, mainly in the hills, including the Kokang, Lahu, Palaung, Pao and Wa and other tribal people.


Sawphwar was a royal title used by the heriditary rulers of the semi-independent Shan States in Myanmar. Literally, Sawphwar means “lords of the sky”. The place where they live is called haw or palace. According to local chronicles, some dynasties of sawphwar date from as early as the 2nd century B.C. When the federated Shan States were formed in 1922, the Sawphwar’ powers were greatly reduced. In 1959, they collectively relinquished their titles. The 33rd and last Sawphwar (prince) of Nyaungshwe, Sao Shwe Thaike’s haw, a teak and brick building can still be visited at the Naungshwe. He was the first president of the independent Union of Burma (The old name of Myanmar).

Geographical Location

Shan state is located in the North- Eastern part of Myanmar. Its capital Taunggyi is famous for the Hot-air Balloon Festival, celebrated in November every year. It is the biggest of the fifteen states and divisions of the Myanmar. The Shan State is a hilly plateau, (the Shan Plateau), which together with the higher mountains in the north and south forms the Shan Hills system. Traditionally, Shan state can divide into three substates: North Shan State, East Shan State, and South Shan State. There are also four self-administered zones and one self-administered division in Shan State: Danu self-administered zone, Kokang self-administered zone, Pa’O self-administered zone, Pa Laung self-administered zone and Wa self-administered division.

Traditional Culture and Heritage Language

Nowadays, Shans are mostly bilingual, speaking both Myanmar and Shan Languages. Tai Yai language is the lingu franca in Shan State. The Shan language, spoken by about 5 or 6 million people, is closely related to Thai and Lao and is part of the family of Tai languages. It is spoken in Shan State, some parts of Kachin State, parts of Yunnan and in some parts of Thailand. Shan ethnic group have their own written Language and literature. The Shan have their own alphabet related to ancient Sanskrit and spoken language strongly influenced by Pali.

Dance and Musical Instruments Kainari and Kainara

The Kainari (male bird) and Kainara (female bird) are mythological creatures, part-human and part-bird. These duet birds dance is the famous Shan tradition dance. The dance moves portray welcoming of Buddha with a dance when he returned to the abode of the humans (after spending the Lent season in the celestial abode) preaching his mother with the accompaniment of music made by Shan drums and gongs. The body of Kainari and Kainara are human with wings attached at the waist. Normally, the dance is performed on auspicious occasions dancers.

Shan Osi (Shan long drum) is traditional symbol remark for Shan ethnic.

Shan Names Sai,

which is pronounced as Jai, is prefix for man name regardless of age. Nang is the prefix for woman names.

Shan Traditional Food

The staple food of Shan is rice, especially sticky rice. Some popular Shan food include:

Sour rice salad

The dish consists of rice, kneaded with boiled fish, fermented mustard, tomatoes paste, mashed boiled potatoes and garlic garnish. Garlic chives roots, garlic oil and crispy garlic garnish give the final touch.

Shan Noddle

Shan noodles are one of the most popular dishes in Myanmar and can be found in almost any restaurant or teahouse. You can have them either as a soup or as a salad mix.

Grilled Dried Fermented Soybeans (pè boak)

Pe Boak means disks of dried fermented soybeans. It is staple food for shan and they eat in different ways; frying, cooking and grilling.


The majority of Shan ethnic are devout Buddhists. Christianity is also practiced among some members of other ethnic groups in the State.

Traditional Dress

Normally, shan men dress in shirts and traditional khaki jackets. Their baggy trousers are usually made of khaki too. Every Shan man wears a headdress. Shan women wear a blouse, printed longyi with a silver belt and a headdress or straw hat.

Places of Interest Inlay Lake

Inlay Lake is one of the major tourist attraction places in Shan State. The unique lifestyles of the Intha people is really popular including one leg peddling or rowing style (wrapping one leg around the oar). Transportation on the lake is usually by boats. We can see floating villages, gardens and markets.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival, one of famous Buddhist festival, also celebrated in the Inlay Lake. The festival takes place in October and features the passage of four revered Buddha images stupas through villages of Inle Lake on the barge. There are also rowing competitions among the villages.

Kakku Pagoda

The Kakku relic pagoda situated near Mway Taw Village, Kakku village tract and not far from Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. It contains over 2,000 Buddha stupas which were built in the 16th century. It will take around three hours drive by car from Inle Lake.

Pindaya Cave

Pindaya caves are in the hills of the southwestern of Shan State near Pindaya, a small city with a spidery legend in Shan State. Caves are a Buddhist pilgrimage site and noted for its 9000 plus Buddha statues.

Flag of Shan State

Shan State has its own flag. On Shan flag, yellow represents the religion of the people of Shan state (Buddhism), green represent the good agriculture the people of Shan land dwell on, red represents bravery of Shan people and white represent peace, unity and stability for the future Shan State.

Pi Mai Tai or Shan National Day

Shan National day is marked on 7 February every year and commemorates the unification of several Shan principalities into a single Shan State on February 7, 1947