Hilltribes of North Thailand


100 years ago or more, the Hilltribe peoples migrated south from China into what are now Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The six major tribes are the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo), the Yao (Mien), the Akha (Ekaw), the Lisu (Lisaw), and the Lahu (Mussur). The main profession of all these tribes is farming, and all of them tend to migrate whenever they feel that the soil at their present location is becoming depleted. Each tribe is very distinct, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress. 

On the outskirts of Chiang Rai the Government have set up a communal village area where a number of these hilltribes are allowed to stay for free. This gives them the advantage of access to the local services, such as schools and medical facilities, and also with visiting tourists the chance of additional income to supplement their simple agricultural life through the sale of their handicrafts.
With Thailand undergoing rapid modern development, it is difficult yet to say whether these tribes will continue in their traditional ways of life, or whether they will eventually be absorbed into the surrounding, and ever more encroaching, Thai society.

Akha (Ekaw) villages are distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. The Akha live in raised houses, within which one small room is set aside for paying respect to ancestors.
The focal point of community life is the open ground where the tribe celebrates its major festivals, especially that of the Giant Swing and where young men and women come to meet (under the watchful eye of the elders). This tribe is easily recognized by the black caps covered with silver coins, worn by the women.
Villages of these colourful people are to be found in the mountains of China, Laos Myanmar (Burma) and northern Thailand. There are approximately 20000 Akha living in Thailand’s northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai at high altitudes. This tribe originate in Tibet. Every Akha village is distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. They live in raised houses on low stilts, with a large porch leading into a square living area with a stove at the back. The roof is steeply pitched. They live on marginal land and find it difficult to eke out a living through their slash and burn method of agriculture. In order to supplement their income, many Akha are now selling handicrafts, employing the traditional skills used in making their own clothing and cultural items.
Akha women spin cotton into thread with a hand spindle, then weave it on a foot-treadle loom. The cloth is dyed with indigo, then sewed into clothing for the family. The women wear broad leggings, a short black skirt with a white beaded sporran, a loose fitting black jacket with heavily embroidered cuffs and lapels. The black caps are covered with silver coins. Akha men and women produce various decorative items of bamboo and seeds. The men make crossbows, musical instruments, a variety of baskets, and other items of wood, bamboo and rattan.
The Akha are deeply superstitious, their religion prescribing exactly how each action should be performed. This tribe is the poorest of the hill tribes, but well known for their extraordinary costumes and exotic appearance.
The Yao (Mien) prefer to live among low hills near dense forest. Their houses also sit on the ground, and feature a space designed for a cooking fire in the center of their main room, as well as a small shrine dedicated to their ancestors and to the guardian spirit they believe to inhabit each individual house.
Their language, long ago derived from Chinese, is written in Chinese Characters, and their paintings, mostly of religious subjects, reflect certain very ancient Chinese artistic styles, although the Yao paintings have a unique flavor of their own, and are coveted by many Western collectors. 
The Yao are the “businessmen” among the Hilltribes, and they also excel in the making of metal farm implements such as axes and plows. Because they’ve long had a written language –unlike several of the other tribes, who had no written version of their language prior to the coming into their midst of Christian missionaries — they also know how to make high quality paper.
They are to be found in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In Thailand there are approximately 55000 Yao in widely scattered villages in the provinces of Phayao, Nan and Chiang Rai, and perhaps another 10000 or so refugees from Laos, living in refugee camps along the border.
The Yao originate in southern China, and are the only hill tribe to have a written language. Yao villages are mostly found on low hills, and their houses built usually of wooden planks on a dirt road. There is a guest platform of bamboo in the communal living area. Their economy for several generations has been based quite largely on the cultivation and marketing of opium, although opium addiction is relatively rare among them. With the present drive to stamp out the cultivation of the opium poppy in Thailand, the Yao find it necessary to seek other means of livelihood.
Yao women are noted for their magnificent cross-stitch embroidery, which richly decorates the clothing of every member of the family. The costume of the women is very distinctive, with a long black jacket with lapels of bright scarlet wool. Loose trousers in intricate designs are worn and a similarly embroidered black turban. Yao silversmiths produce lovely silver jewelry of high quality.
The Yao have a written religion based on medieval chinese taoism, although in recent years there have been many converts to christianity and buddhism. They are very peaceful and friendly, who pride themselves on cleanliness and honour and they are called the “businessmen” among the hilltribes.
Lahu people are to be found in the mountains of China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and northern Thailand. There are approximately 25000 Lahus now living in Thailand. There are four tribes within the Lahu: Black, Red, Yellow and She-Leh. Lahu villages are mostly at high altitude in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Sorn. They originated in south west China. Houses are built on high stilts with walls of bamboo or wooden planks, thatched with grass. A ladder leads to the open central living area, with a store room to one side and living quarters to the other. Their domestic animals like chicken, pigs and buffalos are kept in the basement corral. Their practice of slash and burn agriculture does not provide them with even the basic essentials of life, let alone the enrichment to be found in education for their children, adequate medical care, and the simple amenities of modern life.
Lahu women are skilled in weaving cloth, both on back-strap and foot-treadle looms, producing delicate patchwork trims, and unusual embroidery work. The Black Lahu women wear the most distinctive costumes within this tribe. They wear a black cloak with diagonal cream stripes. The top of the sleeve is decorated in bold colours of red and yellow. Red Lahu women wear black trousers with white edging and vivid sleeves of broad red and blue stripes. All the other Lahu tribes have supplemented their traditional costumes by sarong and Thai shirt. Men and women together make some of the finest baskets to be found anywhere in Thailand. Lahu men produce excellent crossbows, musical instruments, and other items made of wood, bamboo and rattan.
The Lahus are animist and believe in one spirit with overall control all the others. About 30% of the Lahus have been converted to christianity and have abandoned their way of life. The Lahu are independent people and love entertainment and the easy life. They are abviously pride themselves on their skills in hunting and trapping.


The Karen (Kariang, Yang) like to settle in foothills, and live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which live their domestic animals: pigs, chickens, and buffaloes. They, like all the tribes, are skilled farmers who practice crop rotation, and they also hunt for game, with spears and crossbows, and use tame elephants to help them clear land.
Karen women are skilled in sewing and dyeing, and dress in white blouse-sarong combinations with colorful patterns or beads for trim. They wear their long hair tied back in a bun and covered with white scarves.
The Karen are gentle, peaceful, and cooperative people, who, like all the Hilltribes, reserve their highest veneration for their ancestors and living elders.
The majority of the Karen people live in Burma, and yet they also form by far the largest of the major tribes of northern Thailand. There are as many as 280000 Karens living in Thailand. They can be found living both in the mountains and on the plains, most of them in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Sorn, Chiang Rai, but also in central Thailand. They live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which live their domestic animals, pigs, chickens and buffalos. The mountain-dwelling Karens practice swidden agriculture, and the plains-dwellers, for the most part, cultivate irrigated paddy fields.
Each of the many sections of this large ethnic group has its own style of dress. Unmarried girls wear loose white vee necked blouses. Married women wear blouses and skirts in bold colours, predominantly blue and red. Karen men produce musical instruments, animal bells, unique tobacco pipes and numerous other crafted items.
Karens are originally animist, but about 25% of Karens living in Thailand have been converted to christianity by western missionaries. The Karen people are very peaceful and cooperative, who like the other hilltribes, reserve their highest veneration for their ancestors and living elders.
The most famous subgroup of the Karen tribe are the long-neck Karen tribe or Padaung, known for the practice of the women wearing brass rings on their necks. The appearance of a long neck is a visual illusion. The weight of the rings pushes down the collar bone, as well as the upper ribs, to such an angle that the collar bone actually appears to be a part of the neck!
There are many different accounts of why the Padaung practice this bizzare custom. Their own mythology explains that it is done to prevent tigers from biting them! Others have reported that it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. The most common explanation, though, is the opposite of this – that an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery, though, is said to be punished by removal of the rings. In this case, since the neck muscles will have been severely weakened by years of not supporting the neck, a woman must spend the rest of her life lying down.

2 thoughts on “Hilltribes of North Thailand

  1. Stuart,
    wonderful photos!
    Did you have any problems getting the people to sit for you or are they used to being the subjects of cameramen?

  2. Interesting fact silver made in Thailand is only made in villages outside of the main cities by Hilltribe families. Most patterns have been in there family for many years and can only be made by large order. There are no stores or one central place to purchase Hilltribe silver in variety other than from the large wholesale shops in the city. Mondays and Fridays are the days families will bring their goods to the main shops for sale and to pick up new orders. A trip to a silver village is a real eye opener to see how families work together to make beautiful silver pieces of art. All Handmade.

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