Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities, known as the hill tribes. These add an important element to tourism here and you may visit, or go trekking to, numerous villages where they are happy to receive you. Since most are rural and poor, any economically-uplifting opportunities are welcomed.
Most of the hill tribes have migrated into the region during the past 100 years from the Asian interior and have largely preserved their traditional ways, making them a fascinating cultural study. They prefer living above 1,000m, and shy away from the outside world.
There are seven broad hill tribe groupings: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. However, within these categories, there are sub-categories and clans that further divide the groups. Each hill tribe has its own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs and this is sometimes true even of the numerous sub-categories within one hill tribe. For example, the Green Hmong and White Hmong speak in different and distinct dialects and dress differently. The hill tribes are most distinctly recognised for their colourful and unique costume, which they continue to wear daily.
Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the government to form a National Committee for Hill Tribes.
Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of the hill tribes and the government worked hard to eradicate this cultivation by successfully substituting it with other cash crops, such as cabbages and fruits. This is known as the Royal Project, initiated by his Highness King Rama IX, and commended internationally for its success.
However, as is the case with any minority groups, hill tribes have issues with citizenship, conforming to mainstream Thai society and the loss of their indigenous customs and languages. Furthermore, their placement at the centre of the lucrative drug trafficking along the Myanmar border has often put them in compromising positions. These are all difficult issues faced by both the hill tribe people and the Thai government.
Population: approx 300,000, Origin: Myanmar
This is the largest of the minority groups and many of the Karen were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism or being Buddhist. Within the Karen, there are three main sub-groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo, and Red Karen or Kayah.
The Karen wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colours and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes – practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest.
Population: approx 124,000, Origin: Yunnan
This is the second-largest hill tribe group and is sometimes referred to as Meo. They are largely animistic and best known for their intricate embroidery. Known to be fiercely independent and with nomadic tendencies, they sided with communist rebels in Thailand in the 1970s, while the Hmong of Laos sided with the US during the Vietnam and Laos wars – both seeking self-determination.
The Hmong are sub-divided into White Hmong and Green Hmong. The Green Hmong are the most populous in Thailand and their women wear heavily embroidered, very tightly pleated skirts. The men wear baggy black pants with various levels of bright embroidery along the cuffs and seams.
Population: approx 73,000, Origin: Yunnan, Myanmar
Also known as Musor, the Lahu are concentrated near the Burmese border and have five sub-groupings: Red Lahu, Yellow Lahu, Black Lahu, White Lahu and Lahu Sheleh. The Black Lahu is the largest sub-grouping, making up close to 80 per cent of the Lahu population. The women wear very distinctive black and red jackets and skirts and the men wear baggy green or blue pants. They have a reputation as excellent hunters, and survive off vegetable cultivation, with some supplementing this meagre income with opium production.
Population: approx 50,000, Origin: Tibet / Myanmar
The Akha are among the most down-trodden and often most impoverished of the hill tribes, resisting assimilation into mainstream Thai culture. They are, however, the most fascinating and colourful of the hill tribes and can easily be visited, particularly in Chiang Rai province where many reside. Many villages have been converted to Christianity, though some observers decry this as a dilution of their culture.
The Akha have a very unique and rich oral literature tradition, in which they can recite their ancestors back numerous generations. The Akha came to Thailand in the early 20th century, mainly due to their persecution in Burma. The women wear very plain indigo died shirts, which are in turn adorned with all kinds of eye-catching paraphernalia, such as coins, beads, shells, etc. The women are also very visible by their ornate headdress adorned with silver, and many can be seen at the Night Bazaar hawking their intricate silver jewellery. Every year the Akha have a unique swing festival. Opium is still used among this tribe.
Population: approx 40,000, Origin: Central China
Also known as the Yao, they are distant linguistic relatives of the Hmong and originated from China. Because of this, many of the older Mien can still write Chinese, and many display distinctive Chinese facial features. Being the smallest group, the Mien live in isolated villages mostly in and around Chiang Rai and Nan. The Mien women are known for the long black jackets that are adorned with pom-pom like red trim. They are skilled embroiderers and silversmiths.
Population: approx 28,000, Origin: Tibet / Yunnan
The Lisu women are distinguished by their brightly coloured tunics, worn over long pants; some of the older generation continue to wear tasselled turbans on their heads. Occupying villages above 1,000m, they keep livestock and cultivate corn and vegetables. Unlike other hill tribes, they don’t usually live in stilted houses. The Lisu men and women are also recognised as some of the most physically attractive of the hill tribes and marriage outside of their tribe is not uncommon.
Population: marginal, Origin: Thailand
The Padaung are a sub-group of the Shan, who aren’t entirely considered minorities as they have always occupied the areas of northwest Thailand and the Shan states of Myanmar. The Shan speak a dialect similar to Thai and are even known as Thai Yai, having been assimilated into Thai culture.
There are pockets of Padaung around Mae Hong Son. The Padaung attract many curious visitors on account of their long-necked women. A tradition of beautifying women by adding brass rings to their necks has been preserved largely for generating tourism. Although the neck appears cruelly elongated, it is the collarbone which has been depressed rather than the stretching and weakening of the neck.
There are some lesser tribes which you are unlikely to see on mainstream tours; however, they historically play a significant role in the area. The Lua were original inhabitants of Northern Thailand. They speak a Mon-Khmer language, which differentiates them from the other hill tribes, which mainly speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Their villages are much more isolated in comparison to other hill tribes and there is less of a chance seeing them. However, along the Chiang Mai-Mae Hong Son border, you may see women with many tiny orange bead necklaces walking to market.
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