Hill Tribe is a phrase associated with various tribal natives of Northern Thailand. Originally generations of ethnic Asian people migrated south from China and Tibet over the past few centuries and settled in the thick-forested mountainous regions between the borders of northern Thailand and parts of Laos and Burma.
There are several displaced tribes now living in various localities and remote refugee camps in the northern districts of Thailand. I am led to believe that the Thai government is desperately trying to have many of the Akha tribe people repatriated back to countries like those of Laos and Burma.
Thailand’s Northerly Inhabitants
Let me welcome you to the colourful world of Thailand’s most northerly inhabitants. Here you’ll discover up to half a million ethnic Asian people living amongst nature’s inherent environment. Each group has their own distinctive customs, dress, language as well as some animistic religious beliefs.
There are six major groups consisting of the Karen Hill Tribe, the Akha Tribe, the Lahu Tribe, The Hmong Tribe, the Mien Tribe and the Lisu Tribe. Other smaller gatherings include the Lawa Tribe, the Yao Tribe and the Meo Tribe. I very much doubt that you will get to see all of them, but you may certainly give it a try.
If you’re only planning on going to the north for a few days and would like to see as much of this fabulous area as possible with all its diversities, you could include a visit to one of the most commercialised villages to see the Hmong Tribe of Doi Pui.
If it’s not too late after viewing Doi Suthep Temple, then my suggestion to you is to take the road from the palace entrance and continue past the pine forest until you reach the village of Doi Pui. You will find it on all the local tourist maps.
Karen Hill Tribe from Burma
The Karen Hill Tribe is the largest of the minority groups in Thailand, comprising in total of around 300 thousand. They are divided into three main assemblages. The Red Karen or Kayah is one group. Another is the Black Karen or Pgo and the third is the White Karen or Sgaw. Though some continue to practice animistic and Buddhist teachings, others have converted to Christianity.
Hmong Tribe from Yunnan and Laos
The Hmong Tribe is the second largest minority group comprising about 120 thousand. They’re divided into two distinct groups, are fiercely independent, have nomadic tendencies and practice animistic religious beliefs. Many tribe members were originally from Yunnan in the far south-west of China and are often referred to as Meo while others originated from Laos.
These groups are sub-divided into the White Hmong and the Green Hmong with the latter most copious. Women tend to wear heavily embroidered and tightly pleated skirts while men tend to wear baggy black pants with bright embroidery along the cuffs and seams. You’ll find a few Hmong tribe villages in Chiang Mai. Women can be seen selling goods at various markets in the city. Why not visit the villages near Doi Suthep or Doi Inthanon?
Lisa Tribe from Tibet and Yunnan
The Lisu Tribe originates from Tibet and Yunnan and has much smaller numbers than their majority cousins. There are around 30 thousand in total. Perhaps you may be fortunate enough to visit one of their villages high up in the mountains.
Lisu women can be seen wearing brightly coloured tunics worn over long pants. In the photo, you’ll notice some of the older generation still continue to wear tasselled turbans on their heads.
Both men and women are said to be the most physically attractive of all the hill tribes and marriage outside of their own group are not uncommon. This tribe cultivates corn and vegetables, including garlic. They also keep livestock such as chicken, cows and goats.
Akha Tribe from Tibet and Burma
The Akha Tribe population of north Thailand number approximately 70 thousand with much more living in the heart of the Golden Triangle between the borders of Burma and Laos. They are among the most impoverished of all the hill tribes.
The Akha are divided into four main groups using the names Pa Mi, U Law, Law Mi and A Keu with each speaking their own dialect besides the Akha language.
The Akha are inclined to be mistreated due to their resistance in assimilating into mainstream Thai culture while defending their own traditional culture and are often besieged by American missionaries wanting to convert them to Christianity.
Because they practice mostly animistic religious beliefs, if a member of the tribe becomes a non-believer, then he or she usually has to leave the village for good.
Their stilted homes are made from bamboo and cogon grass and usually built on hilltops in an attempt to avoid diseases. The lifestyle is based very much around agriculture, growing rice and vegetables. The Akha are a hard working bunch who on many occasions, spend more time in the fields than with their families.
Now that the Thai government has curtailed their earning from the production of opium, to earn their keep, they are growing cash crops like chillies, soybeans, cabbages, and tomatoes. Akha women are particularly noted for their expertise in the art of weaving. They sell their colourful clothing styles as well as decorative articles made from bamboo, wood and rattan to supplement their meagre income.
Akha women wear plain indigo tunics decorated with many kinds of eye-catching paraphernalia such as coins, beads and shells. They also wear visible ornate headdress embellished with lots of silver.
The Akha are certainly a fascinating and colourful tribe, many of whom can be seen in the Night Bazaars hawking their intricate silver jewellery. You can visit the Akha Tribe in their villages in the Chiang Rai province and perhaps join in their annual swing festival celebrations.
Lahu Hill Tribe from Yunnan and Burma
Lahu Hill Tribe is also known as Musor and number around seventy thousand. Most live close to the Burmese border. They are divided into five groups called Lahu Sheleh, Red Lahu, Yellow Lahu, White Lahu and Black Lahu. The latter being the largest group with close to eighty percent of the Lahu population.
Lahu women wear distinctive black and red jackets and skirts while men wear baggy green or blue pants. The tribe have a reputation as excellent hunters and survive off vegetable cultivation while supplementing their meagre income with opium production. Some even continue to use opium among the tribe.