Keeping the ‘Thai Song Dum’ Culture Alive 

For the past 230 years or so the Thai-Dum or Thai Song Dum people have lived in Thailand and have still managed to retain their own traditions, custom and language.   These tribal villagers began their immigration into Thailand in 1779 from neighbouring Laos and Vietnam.  Most can be found living in Petchaburi Province although a community can also be found in the central province of Supanburi.

The crew of Hua Hin & Cha-AM Today took a ‘road trip’ to Petchaburi to learn more about this cultural group.  In Petchaburi the Thai-Dum people are well integrated into the Baan Nong Chok community.  Baan Nong Chok is located close to Khao Yai, passed Petchaburi City and nearly an hour’s drive North from Cha-Am.  Their presence is most apparent in two locations established so that there will always be a focus on their cultural heritage.

  • Parm Tha Nom Museum

This place is really much more than a museum.  There are artefacts, handicrafts and other information about the day to day lives of the Thai-Dum people.  Photographs of the past and current ceremonial events also show glimpses of the colour and richness of this culture.  However the ‘museum’ also is a place of learning so that the younger generations can be encouraged to follow the traditions and learn language.  The Thai Song Dums’ belief in spirits is also demonstrated especially those belonging to their ancestors and explains why every home has a corner dedicated to the deceased

  • Tha-Dum Learning Centre

Set amongst a beautiful garden and with a hillside backdrop present there is a replica of the tradition Thai-Dom high roofed house where you can wander through and experience some of the way of life of these people.  The house is a large mushroom-like construction with a thatched roof that sets it apart from the standard Thai style. There are people dressed in traditional clothing demonstrating some of the handicraft skills and perhaps an opportunity to see them performing their traditional dance and games.

On our visit the game of ‘Pitee Har Koo’ was underway. This involves throwing a ‘Sabar’, a small padded ‘bag’ with a tail attached between two lines of ‘players’.  Traditionally this was part of the courting process between members of the opposite gender.  Catching the Sabar has implications about whether or not the target of the throw was attracted or not to the thrower.  We were also able to see a demonstration of the very distinctive and meaningful dance style with smiling faces and a fluted musical background.

Anthropologists over the ages, even those who have spent years living daily with some cultural groups, have been known to make terrible mistakes in assuming that they understand cultural mores.  Our one day visit to learn from the Ajarn (teacher) could never do justice to any explanation or description of the rich cultural heritages that these people embody.  With that disclaimer in place these are some of the features of this very distinct culture.

  • Clothing: usually made from cotton and dyed indigo or black and decorated with characteristic geometric patterns.  The style of the clothing worn (number of buttons, covering above or below the shoulder and colour) is also an indication of the status of the wearer, particularly their marital status.
  • Hair Styles: The women have eight distinctive hairstyles which can imply different social statuses.
  • Courtship: The traditions and practices of ‘boy meets girl’ are complex and seem to pervade every aspect of day to day life.  For example traditional dance involves very subtle movements with hands, feet and every part of the movements of the dancers having a meaning and an indication of the dancer’s intentions towards other dancers; particularly those of the opposite gender.  Even the colour of the canopy above the bed shows the marital status of the ‘sleeper’.

Some   Other Comment from Thai-Dum People:

“We have our own language, a language which includes 39 characters. We have our own distinct hairstyle and vibrant clothes which are different to other regions in Thailand. We have our own set of rules, and way of life. More importantly, we are loving, humble and very honest people. All ethnic groups regardless of where they are from should have this particular standpoint and unity.”- Thanom Kongyimlamai, a local leader and wisdom bearer.

“We are very concerned about how this ethnic minority group will be able to withstand the changing currents of modern trends and globalization. We’re worried about this issue and will try to incorporate local culture into the educational curriculum. We have our own language, way of life as well as culture, which I believe has brought us to this day.”-  Panas Luanmuang, Chief of the Nong Prong Subdistrict Administrative Organisation.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity describes cultural diversity being as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. Our visit to the Thai-Dum community demonstrated this diversity in Thailand as the pursuit of cultural integrity is continued by these remarkable and proud people.

Footnote:  Some comments from ‘Wikipedia’.

The Tai DamTai Dum or Black Tai (Thai: ไทดำ) are an ethnic group of Vietnam (Thái Đen), Laos, China, and Thailand.  Tai Dam speakers in China are classified as part of the Dai nationality along with almost all the other Tai peoples. But in Vietnam they are given their own nationality (with the White Tai) where they are classified (confusingly for English speakers) as the Thái nationality (Tai people).

The Tai Dam originate from the vicinity of Dien Bien Phu, in Vietnam, the original area of occupation of the Tai people in the early history of the Tai settlement of Southeast Asia according to the legend of Khun Borom, the legendary progenitor of the Tai-speaking peoples. They called this area Muang Then, the land of God, a name that still applies to the valley around Dien Bien Phu.

The Tai Dam are known as “the people without a country.” In the 1950s during the Vietnam-French War, many of the Tai Dam moved from Vietnam to Laos. In Laos, they worked as farmers, soldiers, and service workers. The Tai Dam language became infused with Lao. In the 1970s, Laos was undergoing a civil war and many of the Tai Dam became refugees and escaped into Thailand. After thousands of years of political oppression, the Tai Dam vowed.