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Mai Soong Pee Mai Tai

If one of your reasons for coming to Chiang Mai is to visit a Go-Go bar you would be well advised to avoid the period around the Shan, New Year. Nearly all the boys working in Chiang Mai’s bars are not Thai but refugees from nearby Burma (Myanmar), in particular from the Shan state, the South Eastern part of Burma bordering Thailand, Laos and China.

They have their own culture and calendar which includes a lunar New Year in the eleventh lunar month. If we understand it correctly it falls on the new moon after the Loy Kratong festival in Thailand, which is held at the full moon. This event is the biggest of the year for Shan people and, much to the annoyance of the bar owners, a time when everyone forgets work and goes off to party.

Ethnically the Shan people are part of the Tai group which has origins spreading from Yunnan province in China. They are also known as Tai Yai (Meaning Big Tai). They Speak their own language, Shan, and have a rich culture which is quite different to Thai. They seem more muscular, with harder more masculine facial features when compared with the softer, sometimes almost effeminate appearance of the classic Northern Thai.

One of the main centres of celebration in Chiang Mai is Wat Ku Tao in the Chang Puek District located off Chotana road and at the back of the city stadium (Sanam Gila)


The “water Melon” pagoda at Wat Ku Tao – from whence it’s name is derived.

This Year the New Year festival “Pii Mai Tai” ran from 6-8 December with activities starting with everyone eating traditional Shan food and shopping for various Shan foods, clothes and other items in the afternoon. The evening sees a live stage show starting with traditional Shan dancing followed by more contemporary Shan rock to conclude the evening.


Eating delicious Shan food at the many stalls around Wat Ku Tao


The area around the main stage is packed until the early hours.


Many of the handsome Shan boys where traditional Shan clothing for the party.

Part of the Golden Triangle, the Shan state was for years under the control of Opium Drug Lords, such as Khun Sa, and remains one of the most lawless and dangerous parts of Burma far from Yangon (Rangoon) and Napyidaw (the new capital). Military forces of the ruling Junta have renewed clashes with the Shan State Army and the United Wa State Army. A common tactic of the Junta is to destroy whole Shan villages killing those who can’t flee, or detaining them as forced labour. The result: a mass influx of Shan into Northern Thailand, with a steady migration to refugee camps along the border and then to Chiang Mai, the nearest urban centre, in search of work.

Their persecution doesn’t end here as they are tolerated but not welcomed or appreciated by the Thai authorities. A source of cheap labour for Chiang Mai’s virulent construction industry, many are paid only 150 Bt (less than $5) for a day’s hard labour. No wonder scores of young Shan males try to make a living in Chiang Mai’s gay bars. Sometimes just to pay dues to various Shan Mafiosi to remain in Thailand. Few speak any English so it’s hard to ask those you meet in the bars about their backgrounds and personal stories, many of which are quite horrific.

If you’d like to find out more about the Shan State visit the Best Friend Library located on Nimanheminda Road Soi 13. The library is an excellent resource on the Shan State and leader of charitable activities supporting the Shan people. If you’d like to help make a donation online: Support us

Mai Soong Pee Mai Tai – Happy Shan New Year!

  1. BonTong says:

    This week! Though we are trying to find the exact dates of the festival. Main day should be 25 November (New Moon). Heard it’s 25 and 26 at Wat in Mae Tang. When we know exactly for Wat Ku Tao in Chiang Mai we will post a news item. Likely 24-26 but need to check.

  2. When is pii mai tai for 2011?

  3. babina angom says:

    i am an indian, a north east indian, a place in india where no one will feel like they are in india. i belong to the MEI-TEI copmmunity, which some of the historians say is a corrupted or rather another word for MAI-TAI. and our new year starts in the month of april, and its called CHEIRAOBA. anyways thanks for the column.

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