Look around a Pa-O village, and you’ll feel connected with an ancient past. While the Pa-O live in Shan State, they are more ethnically similar to the Karen (or Kayin) people. There are nearly 600,000 Pa-O, making them the second largest group in Shan State after the Shan themselves.
Most Karen (Kayin) tribes either embraced Christianity or maintained their animist beliefs. But the Pa-O have been Theravada Buddhists for centuries, like many other Burmese people. Their villages can be easily identified by the ornate Buddhist temples built on the outskirts. However, there are still traces of animism in their daily practice, like shrines to appease the ghosts of houses and trees.
Most of their income is derived from growing rice and vegetables. They depend critically on rain; the dances they enact each year to welcome the rain offer another sign of their animist tradition.
The Pa-O build houses from cherry and pinewood, turning to bamboo when wood is scarce. The homes are typically supported by stilts to create room for keeping buffalo or cows. Each home is surrounded by a fence. The food is similar to that served elsewhere in the Shan State. Meals center around rice, often sticky rice. Garlic also plays a major role.
The Pa-O were supposedly dubbed “Black Karen” by the British, which makes sense given that their traditional costumes are predominantly black. The women wear bright turbans and scarves to offset the dark colors. Local people say they began to dress this way more than 1,000 years ago when they were slaves to other people.
The Pa-O celebrate the same festivals as the Burmese majority, with one addition. On the Full Moon Day of the month of Tabaung, they hold a huge festival. First, they place offerings before the Buddha, with gongs and cymbals ringing throughout the village. Then they feed everyone steaming hot rice – monks first.