Although the Dai once spread as far north as the Yangzi Valley, they were driven south by the Mongol expansion in the thirteenth century. These days, they are found not only in southwest China but also throughout Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Reputed as skilful farmers, they have always flourished in fertile river basins, growing rice, sugar cane, rubber trees and bananas. Accordingly, Dai cuisine is characterized by sweet flavours not found elsewhere in China – you’ll encounter rice steamed inside bamboo or pineapple, for instance. Oddities such as fried moss and ant eggs appear on special occasions.
Dai women wear a sarong or long skirt, a bodice and a jacket, and keep their hair tied up and fixed with a comb, and often decorated with flowers. Married women wear silver wristbands. Dai men sport plenty of tattoos, usually across their chests and circling their wrists. Their homes are raised on stilts, with the livestock kept underneath. Some of the most distinctive and ornate Dai architecture is well decoration, as the Dai regard water as sacred. They’re Buddhists, but like their compatriots in Southeast Asia follow the Thervada, or Lesser Wheel, school, rather than the Mahayana school favoured throughout the rest of China. When visiting Dai temples, it’s important to remove your shoes, as the Dai consider feet to be the most unclean part of the body.