Kula people (Asia)

For other uses, see Kula (disambiguation).
Regions with significant populations
Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos
Shan language, Lao language and Tai languages
Theravada Buddhism, animism
Related ethnic groups
Shan, Bamar people, Mon, Tai peoples and Jingpo people

Kula (Thai: กุลา; Khmer: កូឡា; also spelt Gula and Kola) are Tai peoples who immigrated from Yunnan, China and the Mon and Shan States in Myanmar to Isan, Thailand during the last few decades of the 19th century. The Kula once lived mainly in Pailin Province as refugees during French Protectorate of Cambodia, where many worked as gem traders. The immigration of the Kula led to economic developments and commercialization in the region. The Kula, still a minority ethnic group, are among the wealthiest ethnic groups in modern Cambodia.


In Burmese, Kula (ကုလား, often transliterated Kala), typically used to refer to Indians, was historically used to describe both Indians and Europeans.[1] Kula is also the Thai word for star-shaped kite.

The history of Toongsoo (တောင်သူ Taungthu in Burmese), another name for the Kula people, is unknown. Although Thai documents from the 1870s and '80s use the two words interchangeably, it is not clear if they refer to the same ethnic group. Wilson, for example, writes that Toongsoo (or Tongsú) was used in the 19th century as a designation for (a) The Karen tribe in general, (b) A Thai trader tribe closely related to Shans known for dealing in elephant and horses and (c) The Shan pronunciation of the Burmese word taungthu "hill man", referring to the Pa'O, an ethnic group within the Karen people.

Reporting on the miners in the Chanthaburi and Cambodia peninsulas, Smyth said: "The Siamese often style the gem mining Shán Tongsu, but there are very few real Tongsu among them. Europeans usually called them Burmese, but beyond the fact that they come from the Burmese Shán states the term is not applicable to more than an extremely small percentage, and the application of the name to his face would be not considered flattering by the average Shán."

Kula also refers to miners in the Chanthaburi and Pailin, Cambodia regions who are believed to be of Burmese descent. At the end of the 19th century, it was discovered that the Mon had also immigrated to the area, further muddying the definition. Cambodians sometimes refer to themselves as "the jungle people," as the jungle in the region originally stretched from Dawei to Mawlamyine.

The Kula style of dress is similar to that of people in Pailin, including the traditional umbrella. Kula used to be referred to as "Burmese Cambodian" or "Khmer Shan" but are no longer called either of those.[2]


The Kula language is an amalgamation of words from Shan and Dai, both of which were native Shan peoples. Kula has adapted to include words from other peoples in Northern Thailand and Lan Na like the Northern Thai language, especially those languages spoken in the border communities between Burma and Thailand.

Other Kula who live between Pailin and Stung Treng speak Shan language rather than the Kula mixed tongue. Among them, the Lao language has become the language of business, especially to those living on the border with Laos. However, after the Khmer Rouge, the Kula language has been almost lost, with the language becoming highly Thai-influenced.


Journey in Thailand

Kula merchants traded in Isan and along the banks of the Mekong. Their presence in Isan is recorded as early as the reign of King Rama IV. The first written record of Kula in the region comes from a dispute between a Kula merchant over the purchase of 577 cattle from the governors of Roi Et, Sowannapoom and Khon Kaen, who refused to hand over the cattle. The Kula were protected at that time by Britain, therefore Bangkok acted as mediator and returned the 2763.5 baht owed.

Kula merchants travelled in caravans, some of which consisted of 100 or more people who rode in ox carts and on horses and elephants. The merchants would buy and sell many types of items including elephants, ivory, horns, tusks and antlers, silk, water buffalo, firearms, and other assorted items. Smaller caravans would consist of only 5 to 50 members and would be heavily armed with knives and swords but also sacred magic charms for protection. The Kula distinguished themselves by being nomadic and staying in temples, or in the jungle, prairies and forests. Tung Kula Rong Hai, or "The Plain of the Crying Kula" is so named in honor of the nomadic Kula, and is a vast grassy plain, with areas os swamp as well.

Sparsely populated during the early 19th century, many caravans would become lost, never to find their way out. The communities within the plain erected large wooden poles and planted trees as route markers. There were five main routes through the plain: from Dong Paya Fai, Nakhon Ratchasima to Pak Priew, Saraburi; from Dong Paya Klang, Nakorn Ratchasima to Sanam Chang, Lopburi; from Thanko pass in Nakhon Ratchasima into Kabinburi, Prachinburi through the Panatnikom district in Saraburi to Phanom Sarakham District, Chachoengsao to Nakhon Nayok in Eastern Thailand; from Mottama, Mawlamyine, Myanmar to Phetchabun Province to the Raharng district in Tak Province; and from the Jorn Pass in Surin Province to Sisophon, Cambodia.

As travelling merchants, the Kula played a major role in providing communities in Isan with essential goods, skills and information. They aided the spread of skills such as ironwork and goldsmithing in rural communities and spread information from town to town. As the regional economy advanced and began to prosper, the Kula faced competition from Chinese and Indian merchants as well as individual Thai. Paved roads and railways were built, linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, making goods more easily available to remote regions also contributed to the decline of Kula trading. When the Bowring Treaty ended, it finalized the demise of Kula merchant-caravans in Thailand. Small caravans of Kula still continued to travel to Thailand into 20th century and many Kula descendants living in Northern Thailand still practice their nomadic tradition of trading throughout Isan, though they sell pottery and artificial flowers now.

Kula would sometimes settle in a community once they married, while others returned to Cambodia once the trade era was over. Many Kula traditions and customs have disappeared over the generations through assimilation with local Thai and Lao communities.

Journey in Cambodia

Gula (Shan) horseman in Pailin, Cambodia, an area famous for its sapphires. From Five Years in Siam by H. Warington Smyth, 1898.

During the 19th century, many Kula immigrated to Pailin, Cambodia. According to R. Blandat, a group of Shan from Chanthaburi found a precious stone which they mined. They told the Kula, who, as traders, made money from the venture. Rumours of the gem attracted Chinese, Laos and Vietnamese to the area. The wealthier Kula in Bangkok and the Shan royalty also immigrated to Cambodia, due to economic reasons.


Because of the large Kula population being centred in a small area, the residents sought to set up their own state. Another wave of migrants arrived from Burma in the late 19th century and early 20th century. On the Cambodian side of the Thai-Cambodia border Lung Musu discovered, in 1890, sapphire field in Pailin. Lung returned to Yangon, Burma where he showed the sapphire to the local Shan community. The local merchants organized an expedition first ot survey the land then to recruit Shan families from Laikha, Mok Mai and Meng Nai to settle the area. They constructed a Buddhist temple and a monastic order to take control of the mine. More Shan continued to flock to the area and built Wat Phnom Yat.

The Kula who lived in Pailin worked in the mines and also in the new business of heating. During French Colonial rule, a French gem merchant conducted experiments with the Pailin stones, which showed their efficacy in heat retention. The local French maintained a good relationship with the Kula, and as such many Kula traveled to France to study, returning to Cambodia afterward.

During that time, Pailin's economy grew and the livelihood of the Kula people grew with it. In the 1960s, Pailin became a tourist destination, jolting the Kula people into modern day, forcing their culture to change. For example, Kula traditionally kept their hair long and braided, and the men wore sarongs but with increased knowledge of the outside world, many Kula cut their hair cut and started wearing trousers.

Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge rule struck the Kula people hard. Pailin became a Khmer Rouge stronghold for 30 years, while the Kula people were forced to become soldiers on the border of Lao. Some fled to Thailand while the rest were put to hard labor in the mines. This era is known is the time when the Kula culture was lost.[3]


Many Kula traditions have roots in Burma and the Shan culture.

Clothing and cultural dress

The majority of traveling merchants were male and dressed differently from the locals. Most of their attire was described as similar to the clothing of Burma, Mon, Dai or Shan while some dressed like Karieng. Kula pants are mostly made from cotton and dyed in dark colors. Pants were wide legged and ankle or knee-length, much like Chinese shorts, and were fastened with drawstrings. Men would also wear sarongs, checkered and in dark colors.

Sue Taek Bung shirts are collared shirts, made from a single piece of cloth buttoned in the front. Most shirts were black, dark blue and white in color. The longyi or sarong, is an often sewn in a cylindrical shape, worn from the waist to the feet. It is secured with a knot. It is made from cotton or, occasionally, silk. Men almost always wear a white eingyi shirt with a Mandarin collar, sometimes with a taikpon jacket. Taikpon are usually white, grey, black or terracotta. Men also wear a gaung baung turban and velvet slippers. The Kula hairstyle includes long hair tied on top of the head under the turban.

Women wear a calf-length longyi in solid colors, flower prints or patterns. They are often red-based with stripes or small checks, similar to Mon styles. Royal women wore a long dress called a thin-dai, which was decorated with many threads. Blouses were highly ornamented with silver and were colorful. Women tie a shawl over their shoulders and wear hair bands with flowers in them. Like the men, women carry umbrellas made from bamboo and wear slippers called hnyat-phanat made of velvet or leather. Women pierced their ears and wore kajorn, or earrings, made from silver. Kajorn were worn in pairs, while regular earrings were worn only on the left earlobe. All of these clothes were exchanged for bright colored clothing during celebrations. The clothing is very similar to what is worn by the Shan in Burma.[4]


Mee Kola, a traditional kola dish which stilled involved in Cambodian cooking and themselves.

In Pailin, there are a few different kinds of foods. Kula food is distinct from Burmese cuisine. The most popular Burmese style dish is Mee Kola (មីកុឡា) which is a vegetarian noodle dish made from thin rice stick noodles, steamed and cooked with soy sauce and garlic, sometimes mixed with meat and lobster. Other dishes include tom yum from Thai cuisine and Mon banana pudding from Myanmar. These have all spread to other parts of Thailand and Cambodia, but normally in versions which are flavored more sweetly than the Pailin version, especially in Phnom Penh.

Moreover, Kula merchants ate plain rice and would always carry kitchenware and utensils made from brass along with them on their travels. They mostly made and prepared their own meals and would eat among themselves because they had strict rules regarding proper food. Kula do not eat meat from cows, ox or water buffalo. Their restraint from these meat products was based upon the fact that the animal provided labor and were also the main part of their trade. They would only make meals from animals who were still fresh and died of known causes.

They would also not eat frogs or fish that were found dead rather than killed for their meat. Vegetables were common in their diet, and were consumed in many varieties. The Kula were experts plant lore from their reliance on the natural resources that were available during their travels. Tea was often consumed in place of water and was a regular staple at their homes and during their travel. Alcohol consumption was forbidden because Kula merchants practiced magic to protect them on their journeys and alcohol was believed to prevent this.


The houses in Pailin are built from wood panels, 8 cm to 1 m wide, and includes a wide door and, in the middle of house, there are shrines to Gautama Buddha. The Kula often plant roses in front of their homes.

Further reading


  1. http://www.thatphanom.com/pe_008.php
  2. http://www.huso.buu.ac.th/sociology/boondoem/kula/introduction.html
  3. Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979. Page 300
  4. "Traditional Costume in Myanmar". Travel blog. 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-07.
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