Chiang Mai’s Hill peoples

At just over 700,000 people, Thailand’s hill tribe population constitutes just over 1% of the total population of the country. Most hill tribes live in the highland areas of the north, as well as along the mountainous western border with Burma, farming lands which are unsuited for the wet-rice paddy cultivation practised by the lowland-dwelling Thais. Because they live in the mountains that these minority peoples are known to the Tai as chao khao, or “people of the hills”, a term which is often translated as “hill tribes”. In fact, the term “hill tribe” is something of a misnomer; they are not “tribes” in an anthropological sense, and “hill peoples” or even “highlanders” would certainly be a more accurate translation. Be this as it may, the designation “hill tribe” is widely accepted and must be considered standard current usage.

The Tribal Research Centre at Chiangmai University currently identifies nine separate “hill tribes” who have indigenous status within Thailand. They can be conveniently divided into two groups. The people of the lower slopes, including the Karen, Lawa, Khamu and H’tin, and the true “highlanders” including the Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Mien. Each tribe upholds its own traditions, wears a distinctive style of dress, and speaks its own language.

In addition to these relatively established groups, various other hill peoples, usually recent migrants of refugees from Laos and Burma, have recently settled in Thailand. These peoples, including the Palaung from Shan State and the “long-neck” Padaung from Kayah State, are regarded as temporary residents of Thailand and not accorded hill tribe status by the Thai authorities.

In normal circumstances, national frontiers are fixed in an attempt to define the territorial limits of land inhabited by particular peoples. West of a certain river – the Yalu, for example – the majority people are Han Chinese; east of it they are Korean. No such simple solutions are possible in the hills of Southeast Asia, however. Valleys are inhabited by wet-rice agriculturalists like the Thai, the Lao and the Burmans. The lower slopes of the hills, unsuited for wet rice paddy cultivation, are inhabited by dry rice farmers such as the Lawa and Karen. The higher slopes are farmed by shifting agriculturalists like the Lahu, Lisu and Mien, who grow temperate vegetables and opium poppy to eke out their dry rice crop. Finally, clinging to the very highest peaks and farming the remotest hill tops, may be found the Akha and the Hmong, the two groups traditionally most closely associated with papaver somniferum, the delicate opium poppy which flourishes best at these high altitudes. The resulting mosaic of peoples is as culturally rich as it can be ethnically confusing, and lends North Thailand’s hill tracts much of their charm.

The People of the Lower Slopes


The Lawa are generally considered to have been the indigenous inhabitants of Northern Thailand before the arrival of the Tai. Little enough is known of the original Lawa, though they are believed to have been head-hunters like the Wa of Shan State, to whom they are related. Before the arrival of the Tai in the Chiang Mai region around the 10th century AD, the Lawa lived side-by-side with the more sophisticated Mon urban dwellers of Lamphun, a northern outpost of the Dvaravati Kingdom. After Mangrai’s conquest of the area the Mon were quickly subsumed within the Tai population – as were the majority of the more numerous Lawa, most of whom adopted Buddhism, Tai language and eventually styles of dress. Today most Lawa are indistinguishable from the Northern Tai, with whom they have intermarried for centuries.

A group of about 14,000 Lawa still cling to their traditional ways on the Bo Luang Plateau between Mae Sarieng and Hot, however, making a living by dry rice farming. Unmarried Lawa girls wear loose white blouses edged with pink. Around the neck distinctive strings of orange and yellow beads are worn. After marriage these brightly coloured clothes are replaced with a long light-brown dress, but the beads are still worn. A group of Tai-icised Lawa claiming descent from the legendary King Viranga live in the village of Ban Meuang Kha on the northern slopes of Doi Suthep. There is a statue of King Viranga in the village.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Lawa living in Northern Thailand at 17,092, of whom 8,473 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 28 villages.


There are more than a quarter of a million Karen living in Thailand, mainly scattered along the western border contiguous with Burma’s Karen State. They are skilled farmers, specialising in both wet and dry rice cultivation. Although they employ “slash-and-burn” shifting cultivation, they create less environmental damage than the people of the mountain peaks by maintaining belts of forest between their fields. Indeed, in some ways the Karen form a link between the hill peoples and the lowland Tai. Like the Tai, they live in stilt houses, and they have been resident for centuries. Unlike the other hill tribes, they do not move their villages.

The Karen are largely animist, although sections of the population have embraced Buddhism, and in nearby Burma Christianity has a very strong presence. Karen women are great weavers, employing tie-and-die techniques to considerable effect. Unmarried girls wear white, full-length smocks, usually with red embroidered bands at the waist and hem. Married women wear a coloured blouse over a striped, predominantly red or pink sarong. Their heads are usually adorned with a turban-like headband or cloth. Earrings, bead necklaces and bracelets are worn in profusion. As a general rule, the clothing of Sgaw Karen women is more austere than that of their Pwo sisters.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Karen living in Northern Thailand at 347,242, of whom 111,667 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 736 villages.

The People of the Mountain Tops

Living at progressively higher levels in the remote mountains of the north are the real “highlanders” of the Golden Triangle – Hmong, Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Mien. These are the peoples, all relatively recent migrants to the area, whose exotic and colourful clothing, association with opium cultivation, and picturesque life-style has given trekking in Thailand so much international appeal.


There are just over 80,000 Lahu living in Thailand, sub-divided into five separate groups, the Red Lahu, Black Lahu, Lahu Sheleh, Lahu Balan, and Lahu Bankeo. They are known to the Tai as “Musur”, which means “hunter”, as they excel at this skill. The Lahu are an animistic people, though in recent decades many have been converted to Christianity. Many Lahu are poor, and as a people they are noticeably less well off than groups such as the Hmong, Lisu and Mien.

Lahu Sheleh women wear a black, knee-length robe, open to the front and slit at both sides, over wide-legged trousers. The upper robe is characteristically trimmed in white, usually decorated with an abundance of small white beads and silver buttons, whilst the trousers are decorated with narrow red bands around the thighs. By contrast, Lahu Nyi women wear a blue, green or black jacket, trimmed with red and gold borders, over an ankle-length sarong of similar design. Elaborate silver jewellery and bead necklaces are popular, but headware is generally limited to a small cap or simple wound cloth.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Lawa living in Northern Thailand at 84,262, of whom 32,583 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 156 villages.


There are about more than 120,000 Hmong in Thailand, belonging to two distinct groups, the Blue Hmong and the White Hmong. The Tai (and the Chinese) call these people “Meo”, a name which the Hmong of Thailand consider derogatory. They are clever business people, and show their wealth in displays of massive silver jewellery. The Hmong are a very independent people who resent any attempt by lowlanders to change or influence their lifestyle. Accordingly, they have often been involved in military conflicts, including, in neighbouring Laos, the CIA “secret war” of 1968-75. Until recently they practiced extensive opium cultivation in Thailand; elsewhere, in Burma and Laos, they still do.

Hmong women specialise in producing elaborate embroidered and appliqué fabrics of complex geometric design. These are worn by men, women and children alike. The Hmong also produce batik fabrics – the only Hill People in Thailand to do so. Blue Hmong women wear a knee-length pleated batik skirt with an embroidered apron above puttees over their calves. By contrast, White Hmong women wear long, baggy trousers. Great value is attached to silver ornaments, which are ostentatiously displayed as a sign of wealth.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Hmong living in Northern Thailand at 122,768, of whom 19,011 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 54 villages.


The Lisu tend to be outgoing and confident, mixing and interacting well with the dominant lowland population. They have been established in Thailand for more than a hundred years, and are known by the Tai as “Lisaw”. More than any other hill tribe, including the Karen, the Lisu seem equipped to deal with and even thrive in lowland Thai society. As a result many live in quite elaborate, comfortable houses, and run thriving businesses in the big cities like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

Lisu women dress in a loose, smock-like, double-breasted kaftan which extends to the knees and has wide sleeves reaching to the forearms. These are generally bright blue or green, with pink or red sleeves and striped embroidered shoulders. Beneath are worn black Chinese-style pants and red puttees. On special occasions – for example at festivals – the elaborate costume is complimented with a tight-fitting black bodice studded with silver buttons and tassels. Headware consists of a unique, flattened turban wreathed in strings of beads and lengths of yarn in red, yellow and pink, falling to the shoulders.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Lisu living in Northern Thailand at 30,940, of whom 13,201 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 58 villages.


Like the Lahu, the Akha are a relatively poor tribe living on the very tops of the most inaccessible peaks. They are generally known to the Tai as “Ikaw”. Of Tibetan origin, they are the most recent hill people to have migrated to Thailand, and they are perhaps the least conversant with Thai as a language. Today there are more than 55,000 Akha living in Thailand, practising shifting cultivation of various crops including maize, dry rice and temperate vegetables. Until fairly recently the Akha were deeply involved in opium cultivation, and even today many villages are wracked by problems of opium addiction. They are often shy and even timid by nature, and visitors to Akha villages should take extra care to speak gently and avoid giving offence.

Akha women are most easily distinguished by their elaborate, helmet-like head-dress, made up of silver coins, beads, feathers and fur. Clothing – characteristically a long-sleeved jacket over short skirt ending just above the knees – is of indigo-died cloth, often made with home-grown cotton, decorated with embroidery, buttons, cowrie shells and seeds. Like the Blue Hmong, Akha women wear embroidered puttees between the knee and ankle. Pendant earrings and broad neck bands of silver are highly prized, the latter worn with multiple strings of brightly covered beads.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Akha living in Northern Thailand at 56,162, of whom 5,486 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 35 villages.


The Mien, called “Yao” by the Tais, are the most sinicised of the hill tribes. There are more than 40,000 living in Northern Thailand. They are arguably the most sophisticated of the hill peoples, with a long tradition of writing in Chinese ideographs, a deep-seated belief in Taoist-based religion and ancestor veneration. Mien embroidery and paintings are keenly sought after by visiting tourists, and fetch high prices in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and elsewhere.

Mien women are easily distinguished by their large dark blue or black turbans, worn over a long robe and sash in the same dark hue, and elaborately embroidered trousers. In vivid contrast, a boa of bright red yarn is sewn around the neck and down the front of the robe, which is slit up the front to reveal highly elaborate embroidery work covering the trousers. As with Thailand’s Hill People generally, silver is a symbol of status which Mien women love to display in a wealth of bracelets, earrings, neck rings and necklaces. On special occasions, these ornaments are supplemented by an embroidered outer garment lavishly decorated with silver which may be worn as an apron or as a stole.

In 1998 the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University put the number of Mien living in Northern Thailand at 42,551, of whom 353 lived in Chiang Mai Province in 4 villages.

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Text by Andrew Forbes, Part of ‘Ancient Chiang Mai’. © CPA Media, 2007 – All Rights Reserved.
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