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The migration of Tai groups into Southeast Asia

A brief account of the migration of ethnic Tai peoples into modern-day Thailand and Laos

Whilst Tai groups had probably been gradually infiltrating southwards into what is now northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand for several centuries from their homeland in Southern China the migration of Tai groups into Southeast Asia was hastened during the late 12th- and 13th-centuries as the Mongol armies under Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan extended their empire southwards. Ethnic Tai clans and tribes who would consolidate into Siamese, Northern Thai, Lao, Shan, Tai Lu etc migrated initially down the valleys of the Mekong, Salween, and subsequently, Nan, Ping and ultimately Chao Phraya rivers whilst others, that became known as White, Black & Red Tai, migrated southeastwards down the Red and Black River valleys of Vietnam.

Black River Valley in Vietnam's Lai Chau Province
Black River Valley in Vietnam’s Lai Chau Province

The former groups seem to have had a far easier task in colonizing the new lands and assimilating the local peoples. Although the Shan got somewhat stuck in the hills with the powerful Burmese civilization flourishing in the distant lowlands, migrants in what would become Thailand and Laos advanced rapidly southwards.

King Mengrai's city of Chiang Saen
King Mengrai’s city of Chiang Saen

Probably the first Thai city in modern Thailand was King Mengrai’s 13th-century proto-Lanna kingdom capital of Chiang Saen. Undoubtedly eyeing up the fertile lands to the south he moved rapidly to subdue the Lawa mountain chiefdoms and occupy the rich valleys around Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Lamphun. From here the old, but weak and disunified, Mon city-states of the Central Thai plains, (that had themselves been subjugated by the Khmers for long periods), and the Khmer dependencies of a waning Angkor empire created a convenient power vacuum. The Lao Lan Xang kingdom expanded across what is now known as Issan to the northern limits of the crumbling Khmer civilization whilst the Thais assumed control of Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Lopburi and so-on whereupon after a bit of in-fighting and some problems with the Burmese the rest was history as they say.

The old Mon city of Sukhothai
The old Mon city of Sukhothai

Note historians concur that this was a process of assimilation rather than conquest as one of the major problems faced by early Southeast Asian civilizations was under-population. The last thing you wanted to do as you moved into new lands was to kill all the inhabitants. You wanted to conscript them into your army and put them to work in your rice fields!

Paddy-fields of Lanna - the 'kingdom of a million rice fields' - needed workers
Paddy-fields of Lanna – the ‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields’

Mengrai’s progress south was thus a move into more densely populated valleys and out of the sparsely inhabited mountains.

However, as with their Shan cousins, the Tai tribes to the east never made it past the mountains into the lowlands. They got stuck at first base – as a dynamic Dai Viet culture achieved independence from the Chinese and proceeded to vigorously assert themselves. And the Red, White and Black Tai have remained stuck in the hills of Son La and Lai Chau to this day where they have become, along with The Hmong and Dzao (Yao) just another of Northern Vietnam’s myriad hill-tribe groups, though they would point out they tend to occupy upland valleys leaving the hill-tops to the various Sino-Tibetan groups.

migration of Tai groups. White Tai house near Dien Bien Phu
White Tai house near Dien Bien Phu

A similar status is reserved for the Tais remaining in China’s Yunnan where they still inhabit a wide swathe of the southern reaches of the Province – particularly the Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna in Thai), region around Jinghong, (translates as the ‘12,000 ricefields’), and also interesting to note that whilst they are known by the Chinese as Dai, the Vietnamese were known as Dai Viet and indeed some ethnologists claim that 2,000 years or so ago there would have been very little difference between Thais and Vietnamese – 2 tribal groups who migrated south from the same part of Southern China. (The Vietnamese language, however, is classified as belonging to the Mon-Khmer rather than Tai-Kadai linguistic family.)

migration of Tai groups. Dai (Water Tai) village, south of Jinghong
Dai (Water Tai) village, south of Jinghong

As an aside we have to point out that the Chinese Tai villages we visited were considerably more prosperous and well-provided for than many of the Lai Chau villages where conditions were fairly basic and life clearly pretty tough!

Tai women at a village market near Tuan Giao
Tai women at a village market near Tuan Giao

Black Tai women all dressed up at a local market between Son La and Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. More on the Black Tai in a separate post and we’re off to Shan State next week so…

Son La and Lai Chau Provinces of Northwest Vietnam are visited on our Mountains and Hill-tribes tour whilst the Dai villages of Sipsongpanna are included in our South of the Clouds, Yunnan trip.