Hill Tribes of Thailand
Spread throughout mountains and hills, hidden in dense jungles deep in Thailand’s north, live Thailand’s minority groups. The Thai Hill Tribes migrated from southern parts of China centuries ago. They had left their native lands of Yunan, Tibet and other regions and settled in Thailand. Hidden in the remote lands between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, these people have cultivated their ways of life for hundreds of years. Not only their unique culture prevailed, but also until nowadays, they speak their very own languages.
There are seven major tribes in Thailand: Karen, Hmong, Akha, Law, Lahu, Lisu and Yao. Some of the groups are also known by their alternatives names, for instance: Miao (Hmong) or Mnien (Yao). Each of those exceptional groups has their own culture, religion, language and spectacular fashion, not only far from resembling anything people wear in XXI centaury, but also being enough extravagant to fill peoples’ mind with awe. Most of the groups welcome visitors providing them with opportunity to learn about their ways of life and beliefs.
The main occupation of Hill Tribes is farming, using of slash and burn agricultural technique; however they are also skilled in making various crafts and weaving.
The Karen are one of the most teeming among tribal groups in Asia, although their total population is uncertain. This is because majority of Karen live in Burma where political situation and civil wars have successfully prevented any reliable census. It is estimated though, that there are around 10 millions Karen living in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. There are 300.000 thousand Karen in Thailand, occupying areas of both mountains and plains, mainly in the north of country. The Karen tend to have better relationships with their hosts countries as they are more willing to integrate than any other minority groups.
The Karen live in wooden, elevated houses, beneath which they keep their domestic animals. Chickens, pigs and buffalos serve them as source of food. Karen wear very colorful uniforms, which indicate their relationship status. Unmarried women wear white lose tops, whereas married women put on daring colors and skirts.
The Hmong live in various countries, occupying area of southern China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. They originally come from western China, where they are believed to have lived around the Yellow river valley. Being forced to migrate towards the south was a result of escaping pressure and persecution from the increasing number of Chinese who greatly outnumbered the Hmong and tried to subdue them.
The number of Hmong in Thailand is estimated to be approximately 150 000; most of which occupy area of highlands and mountains. The Hmong’s main source of income used to be growing opium poppies; however, most of Hmong nowadays changed their occupation to sewing and other needle works using cotton or hemp.
The colorful Akha, known for their extraordinary costumes and extravagant appearance, are believed to have come from area of China’s Yunan. There are around 70 thousand Akhas living in Thailand and around 3 more millions in other countries. Although they have their own spoken language, it does not exist in any written form. Similar to other Hill Tribes, the Akha live on elevated bamboo structures with steeply pitched roofs. They believe that humans are not separated from nature and duality between people and natural world does not exist. Their shamans teach them chanting prayers and various rituals. The Akha work both farming land and crafting cultural items and other handicrafts.
The Lisu is yet another colorful Hill Tribe that can be found in China, Myanmar and northern Thailand. Similar to other ethnic groups, Lisu make their living by farming land and selling crafts, although they are known to be involved in opium poppy production. There are above 20000 Lisu in Thailand, most of which live around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. Their villages are characterized by bamboo houses, which unlike other groups, are not elevated, but built on the ground. The Lisu wear clothes of many colors and abundant silver ornaments and due to this special fashion style, they are considered by others (and themselves) to be one of the best looking Hill Tribes in Asia.
The Lisu are very devoted to their pagan beliefs and spirit world. Their shamans are believed to be in power of curing illnesses and contacting ghosts.
Originally from Laos, they migrated in search of work. There are very few Khanu living along Thai and Lao border in small villages located on the hills and mountains. It is estimated there are less than 10 thousand of them in Thailand. Their lines of work involve farming, fishing, hunting and also trading. The Khamu practice pagan rituals and beliefs, where they shamans are considered to have magical powers.
The Lahu, originally stemming from south west China, occupy areas of highlands in, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China. Found on higher altitudes than other ethnic groups, the Lahu live in elevated structures requiring ladder or steps to enter. Underneath the house, various animals can be found. The Lahu are famous for making fine baskets and other wood items. Similarly to other Tribal Hills, Lahu beliefs oscillate around nature, spirits and shamans.
The Lawa have been in the region of nowadays’ Thailand at least as long as the Thais themselves. They are believed to migrate from the area of today’s Cambodia, but due to the length of their stay in Thailand, not only they speak Thai as their first language, but also they live their ways almost identically to the rest of Thais. That being said, there is an exception of around 15 thousand Lawa living in Mae Hong Sorn province, where they still cultivate their native culture. They are not as skilled in crafts as other groups, but they are also better in agriculture, which gives them significant financial support. Depending on their relationship, there is a difference in their dress code, with unmarried girls wearing white and pink tops and bright colored necklaces, whereas clothes are replaced with long dress once the girl gets married. The Lawa’s religions are split between traditional paganism and Buddhism.
The most of 28 thousands Thins are to be found in the north of Thailand, around Nan province. They have been present in the area for a very long time. They villages consist of bamboo made houses and their main occupation is growing rice. Similarly to Lawa, their religious beliefs are split between animists and Buddhists.
The Palong originally come from Myanmar (Burma). They had migrated and settled in Thailand recently, no more than 20 years back. There are not too many Palongs in Thailand; nonetheless, their villages are a great stop over during mountain treks. Their present numbers oscillate around 60 thousands, most of which live in Burma. Most of Palong have converted to Buddhism, but some cultivating old pagan habits can be still found.
Their main source of income is wrapping cigars, which they are very good at.
Originally from Laos, Malbri who are also known as “spirits of the yellow leaves”, live around Thailand’s north, although their numbers are extremely small. The remaining 100 of Malabri live around Nan and Phrae provinces. The Malabri are nomads and tend to move around every week. Their occupation oscillates mainly around hunting.