The Thai word for hilltribe is ‘chaao kao’ which means ‘mountain people’. It is also a term that refers to ethnic minorities living in the remote highland areas of north and southwestern parts of Thailand. Thereare an estimated 1m hillltribes living in Thailand spread over 9 main groups; Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Mien, Hmong, Karen, Lawa, H’tin, Khamu (and a handful of other smaller groups with a minimal population). Each can be divided intosubgroups and clans, with their own distinct language, culture, customs and costumes.
The first hilltribes seen in Thailand were the Lawa and Karen who have been here since 300 A.D . In particular the Lawa, due to their long history here have been largely absorbed into Thai society and much of their heritage lost. Other groups (Lisu,Lahu,Hmong,Mien,Akha ) who mostly reside in Chiang Rai originate from Southern China arriving in the early 20th Century. Then there are many refugee hilltribes who fled much later when political turmoil and communist uprisings caused them to flee from neighbouring Laos and Burma.
The hilltribes traditionally practiced subsistence agriculture, using slash and burn farming methods to live off the land. They were largely left to their own, living in the highlands of Northern Thailand until the 1950s when depleted forest reserves together with poverty, opium growth and increased risk of insurgency led the Thai government to exert more control and management over them. Hence the National Committee for Hilltribes was founded in 1959 with the aim to ‘integrate the hill people into Thai society, while allowing them to preserve their culture’. Until today this remains their policy towards the hilltribes.
Part of the government’s scheme is the Royal King’s Agricultural Project considered a showcase success worldwide for weaning farmers off growing opium to alternative cash crops such as coffee, fruits and vegetables. Across Thailand one can visit these Royal Agricultural projects which were the starting points for educating farmers on how to grow alternative crops instead of opium, organic farming methods, irrigation and efficient land use
All the hilltribes practice animism - a belief in the spirit world. They take great care not to offend spirits and practice spirit offering festivals. Over the years as missionaries made their way through Thailand many were converted to Christianity, and through integration into Thai society many were converted to Buddhism.Such that nowadays it is not uncommon to find hilltribes that still maintain their spirit beliefs but have also adopted Christianity or
Buddhism in parallel.
Most hilltribes have no written language of their own so their history, culture and customs are poorly documented. Groups which have been influenced by Chinese culture such as the Hmong use Chinese script to record songs and stories. Other groups such as the Karen have had their language transliterated using the Roman alphabet by missionaries.
The hilltribes are highly skilled at weaving and dyeing cotton to create beautiful clothes,scarves and bags. Groups such as the Karen are renown silversmiths and their exquisite creations are a huge export worldwide. Many of these exquisite handicrafts can be seen on sale in markets in towns (not to be mistaken for copies made in factories) and are a popular souvenir choice for tourists which also provides supplemental income for the hilltribes.