Long ago, in the heart of the Tai Country, there lived a young couple who loved each other very dearly. He was strong and she was beautiful. They had been engaged for three long years, and were to be married in the coming winter, just a few months away. But unexpectedly, the country side was attacked by neighboring pirates. Young men of the country were called on to go out and battle the invaders.
According to Tai culture, to protect young girls from being harassed in time of war, their parents hastened to get their daughters married to their fiances or suitors. Therefore, that young in-love couple were wedded quietly before the boy was sent out to battle.
Not very long afterward, the battle was over. The invaders retreated and the young soldiers came back home. Unfortunately, the newly wed husband never came home. He was one of those who were declared to have been killed in the battle. His painful departure happened so suddenly that he had no time to say his last words to his beloved wife.
To be close to his wife, the spirit of the husband turned into a Bong Paem (caterpillar). The caterpillar fastened itself to the front of his wife’s blouse. She tried to remove it, but strangely could not. She then realized that this Bong Paem was actually her husband and felt the warmth of his loving spirit. Not long afterward, the caterpillar turned into a butterfly and had to fly away.
To keep the precious memory of his visit, the wife created silver buttons for her blouse in the form of a pair of butterflies clasped together and called the buttons Maak Paem. Representing her husband and herself, each pair was designed to be male and female, called in Tai: To Por (the father one) and To Mae (the mother one). The most common design of the Maak Paem has come to be the butterfly or Kaap Beua. Other designs include: Chak Chan (cicada), and Bork Sorn (a flower).
After that ancient time, ladies from royal and wealthy families began to replace their blouse buttons with rows of Maak Paem, from ten to fifteen pairs depending on their different blouse sizes. Married women wear an even number of pairs. Girls and single women wear an odd number. Nowadays, Tai women of all ranks and ages wear this traditional Tai symbol in their daily lives, especially those living in our homeland, in today’s northwestern Vietnam.