I spent a semester of my master’s in Chiang Mai. As a European I rarely had the chance to deeply analyse any space of the South-East Asian context and culture so living six months in Thailand opened my mind almost to 360 degrees! I learned so much about Thailand but more about the bordering countries such as Myanmar. So, I will tell you about a day trip that I had with my classmates to discover more about an ethnic group, the Shan community living in Chiang Mai.
But where is the Shan community coming from? What does Wat mean?
Shan migrants are one of the largest of the seven main ethnic groups in Myanmar and they constitute the first community of migrants in Chiang Mai after their first wave of migration in the 18th century.. since then they established their new lives and networks in Thailand. Following a field trip among the Shan communities.
Wat is the Thai name for Temple and this is something that you might not find out easily in the tourists guides but in Chiang Mai there are two Wats that are landmarks for the Shan community: Wat Papao and Wat Kutao.
The temple is located in the North East corner of the old walled city that is approachable within walking distance. That day we reached the temple with the school bus and as soon as we parked we were welcomed by a young monk that has been living there for 10 years. After a quick look at the outside of the temple we took off our shoes (there is no other way to enter a temple!) and we sat on the floor in a circle to start our conversation. Both the Prof
Professor and Monk were speaking Thai so we were first hearing them speaking Thai language and then we were hearing the translation in English.
P:“Can you tell us more about your life story?”
M: “I arrived here in Chiang Mai when I was six years old. My father was involved in the very first insurgency movement fighting against the Burmese military back to Shan state. When he came here in Chiang Mai, he started working as a construction worker at the “700th Year” sport complex as many other Shan people did at that time.” The sport complex has been an attraction for many Shan migrants who were looking for economic stability and a safe place where to be employed. M continues… “My father passed away four years ago while I lost my mother when I was 2 years old”
P: “ Have you ever thought of going back to Shan state?”
M: “ Well.. I am nostalgic, yes. I would love to return to Shan state but I would rather be doing it when the situation at home is stable. In terms of political but also of economic peace because there are still political conflicts going on and this has a consequence on economic conditions. Overall, I have the feeling that there are less and less people from Shan state as they are returning home… In both Shan temples there used to be around 100 monks from Shan State but now there are around 20. I had talked with people and governmental officials and it seems that more than 100.000 Shan people are going back to their home in the last few years. Possibly due to the new policy for the renewal of the passport. The fee payment for the renewal of the passport is 20.000 bath which is a high price for most Shan migrants. Here in Northern Thailand at the moment there should be around 700.000 migrant workers.” The reaction of the professor was a bit skeptic as she mentioned that the NGO “Map” estimated around 200.000 migrant working in the area in Northern Thailand.
P: “It seems that you spent quite a lot of time here so can you tell if there has been any changes since the very first time you arrived?”
M: Well yes. I have been here over 20 years and I have the 10 years card that proves that I have been living here for a long time. If you have this card, it shows that you came here because of political turmoil in your country. Back to your question, in terms of cultural aspect I did not see much changes probably because Shan people are really religious and they practise a lot Buddhism. It does not matter how much they earn, they will always dedicate and sacrifice something for religion