Who are the hill tribes of Thailand? They are ethnic minority groups who migrated from Laos, China, Myanmar and came to settle in northern Thailand, several hundred years ago. They settled in the highlands and hilly areas, hence the term ‘hill tribes’.
Traditionally the hill tribes are subsistence farmers who grow rice and crops. Their major source of income was growing opium, until it was outlawed in the 1960’s. With the help of the royal project which helped the hill tribes switch from Opium cultivation to growing cash crops such as coffee and strawberries.
The hill tribes traditionally practiced subsistence agriculture, using slash and burn farming methods to grow rice and crops. They were largely left to their own, living in the highlands of Northern Thailand until the 1950’s when depleted forest reserves together with poverty, opium growth and increased risk of insurgency and led the Thai government to exert more control and management over them. The National Committee for Hill tribes 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 hill tribes.
Growing opium was a major source of income for them until it was outlawed in the 1960’s. This led to the creation of the Royal King’s Agricultural project which helped the hill tribes switch from Opium cultivation to growing cash crops such as coffee and strawberries. It also taught them organic farming methods, irrigation and efficient land use techniques. Today it is considered by the global community as a showcase of success for eradicating opium growth, and replacing it with more sustainable crops.
There are around 7 major hill tribes of Thailand, the different groups are; Karen, Akha, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu and Palaung. Each has their own unique culture, customs and language and each has their own subgroups.
The Karen are the largest hill tribe group in Thailand, with an estimated population of around 1,000,000. The Karen people are believed to have originated from Tibet, moving south to Myanmar and northern Thailand. Today, they live in proximity to areas alongside the Thai-Myanmar border such as; Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and some in central Thailand. To read more about the Karen Hill Tribe click here
The Akha hill tribe originate from Tibet, the majority live in Yunnan province in south west China. However they can also be found in Laos, Myanmar and northern Thailand in Chiang Mai and
Chiang Rai provinces. The Akha migrated to Thailand at the beginning of the 20th Century and now approximately 80,000 live in Thailand. They have no traditional written language and literacy amongst older generations is virtually nil.
One of the best ways to learn about the Akha and their fascinating culture is through a visit to the Community Based Tourism village – Ban Lorcha located in Chiang Rai province. This is a project set up by the PDA Population & Community Development Association that aims to create a sustainable tourism strategy for hill tribe villages. One of the ways of doing this, is by giving control of tourism activities to the villagers.
The Akha are a highly superstitious group , holding strong beliefs about the spirit world. Most notably, their villages are known for their unusual spirit gates which demarcate the border between the spirit world and physical world. These gates are so sacred that, they should not be touched by humans at any cost. The Akha believe that this will disturb the spirits and bring bad luck upon the whole village. The other unique feature at the village entrance, are the almost life-sized wooden sculptures of a male and female figures that symbolise the human world. For more information about the Akha hill tribe click here.
The Hmong hill tribe (sometimes called ‘Meo’) are the second largest hill tribe group in Thailand. They originated from China, today they can be found in large numbers in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. They share a lot of the same beliefs and traditions as the Han Chinese, for example – a strong belief in ancestral worship. The are mostly known for their production of hemp textiles, batik techniques and colourful embroidery. The Hmong are the most commercially astute and business savvy of all the hill tribes of Thailand. As a result they are the most wealthy of groups. Traditionally their villages can be instantly recognised by their ground level wooden houses (unlike raised stilt bamboo houses of other tribes). This could be because, they originate from the southern China where temperatures are cooler thus favouring ground level living.
The Lawa due to their long history in Thailand, have been largely absorbed into Thai society and much of their heritage lost over time. In fact there is evidence to suggest that the Lawa people inhabited the northern plateaus long before the Siamese people from central Thailand migrated up to the north. Other groups such as the; Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Mien and Akha, who mostly reside in Chiang Rai province originate from southern China arriving in the early 20th Century. Then there are many refugee hill tribes who fled later on, from political turmoil and communist uprisings in neighbouring Laos and Burma. To read more about the Lawa Hill Tribe click here
The Lahu hill tribe otherwise known as the ‘Muser’, is a Burmese word meaning ‘hunter’ because they are renowned for their superior hunting skills. There are around five main sub-groups of Lahu;
– Red Lahu
– Yellow Lahu
– Black Lahu
– White Lahu
– Lahu Sheleh
The most common group in Thailand are the Black Lahu who make up 80% of the Lahu population. They are mainly located in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. The Lahu can be recognised by their distinct traditional costume. Lahu women wear black and red jackets and shirts whilst the men wear baggy green or blue pants.
The Lisu hill tribe are believe to originate from Tibet, and like many other hill tribes migrated through to southern China. Today the Lisu can be found in Myanmar, India and Thailand. They make up 4.5% of the total hilltribe population in Thailand. There are 2 subgroups of Lisu:
– The Flowery Lisu (Hua Lisu)
– The Black Lisu (He Lisu)
Most of the Lisu in Thailand are the Flowery Lisu . The women of this group wear multi-coloured knee length tunics of red, blue or green with a wide black belt and blue or black pants. Lisu men wear baggy pants and shirts made of felt with long sleeves and an inside lining. Silver buttons are sewn on the shirt, the more the better. They also wear a red sash around the waist and a shoulder bag. As with most of the other hill tribes, the Lisu have no written language of their own. Over the years Christian missionaries helped them to romanise their language, using the English alphabet to transliterate the sounds. As a result a large majority of Lisu’s today are Christian, practicing traditional beliefs in animism and ancestral worship in parallel.
The Palaung are the most recent hill tribe to settle in Thailand. Originating from Tibet, the Palaug in Thailand today have moved from Myanmar, fleeing persecution from the Burmese military. The main group in Thailand are the Pale or Silver Palaung. Traditional female dress is very distinctive, and includes a bright red skirt, worn like a sarong. They also wear silver hoops around their waist which is believed to be a a form of protection. Tradtionally, they have practiced a mixture of Animism and Buddhism. However today some have been converted to Christianity.
One of the most famous Palaung villages in northern Thailand is Ban Khop Dong in Doi Angkhang. It’s location along the Thai- Myanmar border, means that the Doi Angkhang mountain range has a lot of Palaung settled there.
All the hill tribes of Thailand 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. Nowadays it is common to find hill tribes that still maintain their spirit beliefs but have also adopted Christianity or Buddhism in parallel.
Most hill tribes 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 hill tribes of Thailand 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 hill tribes.
If you visit Chiang Mai or northern Thailand, there are many ways to experience hill tribe culture. If you only have a few hours, then you could visit a touristic village such as ‘Baan Tong Luang’ village about 45 minutes drive from Chiang Mai city. There are around 7 different types of hill tribes you can see here such as the; Karen, Mien/Yao, Hmong, Palaung and Long neck. This village has been set up for the purposes of tourism, but offers an educational overview about the different tribes if you’re short on time. The villagers all wear traditional costumes, offering the visitor a glimpse into traditional hill tribe life.
If you have a day, you could spend it in a hill tribe village and/or combine it with a bit of trekking, such as on our 1 Day Hill Tribe Tour .
For a cultural immersion experience, you could stay overnight in a village at a hill tribe homestay . You can cook and enjoy traditional hill tribe meals together with your host family, and experience a day in the life of a hill tribe family. This probably the best and most authentic way to experience the hill tribes of Thailand.