Hilltribes of the North Thailand.
The Lanna Thai kingdom of Thailand.
Northern Thailand's moutain peoples - the so called
"Hilltribes". The rugged terrain of the forested hills was left
practically unpopulated for centuries, and this factor accounted for
the isolation and the conservative traditions of the little
townships established in the valley. Immigration hilltribes in the
last century have filled hils void, and today the mountains of
northern Thailand are inhabited by half a million people belonging
to several different tribes.
The "Hill tribe" are the ethnic miorities living in the
mountainous regions of Thailand's far north and west. The Thais refer to them as "Cho Khao"
("mountain people"). Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs
Most are of semi-nomadic origin, having migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Myanmar, China,
and Lao during the past 200 years or so, although some groups may have been in Thailand much longer. Thay
are "fourth world" people in that they belong neither to the main aligned powers nor to the developing nations.
Rather, they have crossed and continue to cross national bodders without regard for recent nationhood.
The sex major tribes are the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo, the
Yao (Mien), the Akha (Ekaw), the Lisu (Lisaw), and the Lahu
The tribes most likely to be encountered in the region can be divided into three
main linguistic groups: the Tibeto-Burman (Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the Karenic (karen, Kayah), and
the Austro-Thai (Hmong, Mien). With in each group there may also be several subgroups, eg, Blue Hmong,
White Hmong: these names usually refer to predominant elements of clothing.
The Shan (Thai Yai, meaning large Thai) are not included in the descriptions below as they are not a hill-tribe group.
They have permanent habitations and speak a language similar to Thai. Thai scholars consider them to have
been the original inhabitants of the area. Nevertheless, Shan village are often common stop on hill-tribe treks.
Language and culture constitute the borders of their world. Some group are caught between
the 6th and 21 st centuries, while others are gradually being assimilated into modern life.
Many tribes people are also moving into lowland areas as mountain lands become deforested by
both traditional swidden (slash-and-burn) cultivation and illegal logging.
The main profession of all thes tribes is farmming, and all
of them tend to migrate whenever they fell that the soil at their
present location is be coming depleted. Each tribe is distinct, with
its own culture, traditions, religion, language, art, and has a
special style of dress.
The following comments on dress refer
mostly to the female members of each group, as hill-tribe men tend
to dress like rural Thais. Population figures are taken from 1995 estimates.
The total hill-tribe population to be around 550,000.
Recently there have been many projects attempting to
integrate hilltribe communities into the mainstream of society and,
particularly, to substitute opium farming with alternative crops.
Such efforts have met with much success, and today Thailand is no
longer a major producer, although it is still a conduit for opium
caravans from Burma and Laos.
A large part of the success is due to the efforts of King
Bhumipol, who has dedicated much personal attention and much of his
own funds to help the people of the mountains. Today, tribes people
make more frequent visits to town markets and are more cofident in
approaching the Thai authorities and the people of the
Many children now receive a basic education (mostly from
teachers provided by the Border Patrol Police) and nearly all speak
a minimal amount of the Thai language. It will be a long while,
however, before the mountains of Northern Thailand are safe and
healthy places to live; and the price to be paid for the development
may well include the loss fo cultural indentity and many ancient
Karen (Thai : Ka-rinag or Yang)
Population : 322,000.
Origin : Myanmar
Present location : Thailand, Myanmar
Economy : Rice, Vegetables, Livestock
Belief system : Animism, Buddhism, Christianti, depening on the group
Distinctive Characteristics : thickly woven
V-neck tunics of various collours (unmarried woman wear white).
Kniship is matrilineal and marriage is endogamous. They tend to live
in lowland valleys and practice crop roation rather than swidden
(slash-and-burn) agriculture. There are five distinct Karen Groups-
the White Karen (Skaw Karen), the Pwo Karen, the Black Karen (Pa-O) and the Red
Karen (Kayah), with the Long neck Karen. Thes group combined form the
largest hill tribe in Thailand, numbering a quarter of a Miillion
people of about half of all hill triber people. Many Karen continue
to migrate in to Thailand from Burma, fleeing Burmese government
Hmong (Thai : Meo or Maew)
Population : 124,000.
Origin : South China
Present location : south China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam
Economy : Rice, Vegetables, Livestock, Corn, Opium
Belief system : Animism,
Distinctive Characteristics : tribe people wear simple black jackets and indigo
or black baggy trousers with striped border or indigo skirts and silver jewellery. Most
woman wear their hair in a large bun. They usually live on mountain peaks or plateaus above
1,000 meter. Kinship is patrilineal and polygamy is permitted. The Hmong are Thailand's
second-largest hill-tribe group and are especially numerous in Chiang Mai province.
Mien (Thai : Yao)
Population : 40,300.
Origin : central China
Present location : Thailand, south China, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam.
Economy : Rice, Corn, Opium
Belief system : Animism, with ancestor worship and Taoism.
Distinctive Characteristics : women wear black
jeckets and trousers decorated with intricately embroidered patches
and red fur-like collars, along with large dark blue or black
turbans. They lave been heavily influenced by Chinese traditions and
use Chinese characters to write the Mien language. They tend to
selte near mountain springs at between 1,000 and 1,200 meters.
Kinship is patrilineal and marriage ispolygamous. The mien are
highly skilled at embroidery and silversmithing.
Lisu (Thai : Lisaw)
Population : 38,000.
Origin : Tibet
Present location : Thailand, Yunnan.
Economy : Rice, Opium, Corn, Livestock
Belief system : Animism with ancestor worship and spirit possession.
Distinctive Characteristics : The
women wear long multicoloured tunics over trousers and sometimes
black turbans with tassels. Men wear baggy green or blue pants
pegged in at the ankles. Premarital sex is said to be common, along
with freedom in choosing marital parters. Paltrilineal clans have
pan-tribe jusrisdiction, which makes the Lisu unique among
hill-tribe groups (most tribes have power centred at the village
level with either the shaman or a village headman. Lisu villages are
usually in the mountains at about1,000 meters.
Lahu (Thai : Musur)
Population : 73,200.
Origin : Tibet
Present location : south China, Thailand, Myanmar.
Economy : Rice, Opium, Corn, Livestock
Belief system : theistic animism (superme delty is Geusha): some groups are Christian.
Distinctive Characteristics : black and red jackets with narrow skirts for
women, bright green or blue-green baggy trousers for men. They live
in mountainous areas at about 1,000 meters. Their intricately woven
shoulder bags (yaam) are prized by collectors. There are four major
groups - the Red Lahu, the Black Lahu, the Yellow Lahu, and the Sheleh
Akha (Thai : E-kaw)
Population : 48,500.
Origin : Tibet
Present location : Thailand, Loas, Myanmar, Yunnan
Economy : Rice, Opium, Corn
Belief system : Animism, with an emphasis on ancestor worship.
Distinctive Characteristics : headdresses of beads, feathers and dangling siliver ornaments.
Villages are along moutain ridges or on steep slopes from 1,000 to
1,400 Meters in altiude. The well known Akaha Swing Cermony takes
place mid-August to Mid-September - between planting and harvest -
and is liked to ancestor worship and spirit offerings. The Akha are
amongst the poorest of Thailand's ethnic miorites and tend to resist
assimilation into the Thai mainstream. Like the Lahu, they often
cultivate opium for their own consumption.