Image via The Washington PostIn Tai Lue, the word for panda is a compound noun literally meaning "star bear" which is mí.dáaw in the language. The word can be Thai-ified to mǐi.daaw (หมีดาว), with mǐi being "bear" and daaw "star".
In Thai, such compound does not exist however. In Thai (and Lao), "panda" is mǐi.pʰɛɛn.dâa (หมีแพนด้า) which literally means "panda bear". The Thai -pʰɛɛn.dâa is most likely borrowed from English which itself is a loanword from Nepalese via French. (source) Therefore, "panda" in Thai is ultimately from Nepalese.
It is not surprising to see why the Thais do not have a native word for pandas since the animal is not native to Thailand.
Interestingly, the Tai Lues apparently did not borrow the term from the Chinese. In particular, the Tai Lue word is not a calque from Chinese. In Chinese, "panda" is xióngmāo (熊猫) "bear cat" or "cat bear" (Taiwan).
Unless they borrowed it from other Chinese dialects, the fact that the Tai Lues did not borrow the term from Chinese creates some interesting questions: Why star bear? What makes the animal starry? At the moment, I cannot clearly see the "star" part in the animal, whereas in other animals with names made up of "star", I do see it more clearly. For example, "leopard" in Tai Lue and Thai is literally "star tiger", sɯ̌a.daaw (เสือดาว). I find this compound sensible. The rosette pattern of the leopard's coat actually looks starry.
Given the analysis of the starry pattern of the leopard's coat, we might be able to say that perhaps the "starry" part of the panda is the black circles around its eyes. This suggests that perhaps the Tai Lues interpret the circles as stars. However, I do not know the etymology. If you know it or have a different analysis please leave a reply.
The panda is an animal belonging to genus Ailuropoda, family Ursidae, sharing the same family with bears. The animal is native to Central China.
Here is a video of pandas.
The Tai Lue word was passed on to me by Phet. Check out his blog in which he mainly discusses Khmu related topics.