There are at least ten diﬀerent hill tribes in northern Thailand, many of them divided into distinct subgroups. Migrating from various parts of China and Southeast Asia, most arrived in Thailand in the 12th century and have tribal relatives in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Hill tribes in Thailand have sophisticated systems of customs, laws and beliefs, and are predominantly animists. They often have exquisitely crafted costumes, though many men and children now adopt Western clothes for everyday wear.
Karen Hill Tribe
The largest hill-tribe group (pop.500,000), the Karen hill tribe began to arrive in the 17th century, though many are recent refugees from Myanmar. Most of them live west of Chiang Mai, stretching all the way down to Kanchanaburi.
Unmarried Karen women wear loose V-necked shift dresses, often decorated with grass seeds at the seams. Married women wear blouses and skirts in bold red or blue.
Perhaps the most famous of all hill-tribe groups are the Padaung, a small subgroup of the Karen. Padaung women wear columns of heavy brass rings around their necks.
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Hmong Hill Tribe
The Hmong hill tribe (or Meo; pop.110,000) are found widely in northern Thailand, and are also the most widespread minority group in south China. The Blue Hmong subgroup live to the west of Chiang Mai, while the White Hmong are found to the east. Most Hmong live in extended families in traditional houses with a roof descending almost to ground level.
Blue Hmong women wear intricately embroidered pleated skirts decorated with bands of red, pink, blue and white. White Hmong women wear white skirts for special occasions and black baggy trousers for everyday use. All the Hmong are famous for their chunky silver jewellery.
Lahu Hill Tribe
The Lahu hill tribe (pop.80,000) originated in the Tibetan highlands. The Lahu language has become the lingua franca of the hill tribes, since the Lahu often hire out their labour. About one-third of Lahu have been converted to Christianity. The remaining animist Lahu believe in a village guardian spirit, who is often worshipped at a central temple.
Houses are built on high stilts and thatched with grass. Some Lahu women wear a distinctive black cloak with diagonal white stripes, decorated in bold red and yellow on the sleeve, but many now wear ordinary clothes. The tribe is famous for its richly embroidered shoulder bags.
Akha Hill Tribe
The poorest of the hill tribes is the Akha (pop.50,000). Every Akha village is entered through ceremonial gates decorated with carvings of human attributes – even cars and aeroplanes – to indicate to the spirit world that only humans should pass.
Akha houses are recognizable by their low stilts and steeply pitched roofs. Women wear elaborate headgear consisting of a conical wedge of white beads interspersed with silver coins, topped with plumes of red taﬀeta and framed by dangling silver balls.
Mien Hill Tribe
The Mien hill tribe (or Yao; pop.42,000) consider themselves the aristocrats of the hill tribes. Originating in central China, and widely scattered throughout the north, they are the only people to have a written language, and a codiﬁed religion, based on medieval Chinese Taoism, although many have converted to Christianity and Buddhism.
Mien women wear long black jackets with bright scarlet lapels, and heavily embroidered, loose trousers and turbans.
Lisu Hill Tribe
The Lisu hill tribe (pop.30,000), who originated in eastern Tibet, are found mostly in the west, particularly between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. They are organized into patriarchal clans, and their strong sense of clan rivalry often results in public violence.
The Lisu live in extended families in bamboo houses. The women wear a blue or green knee-length tunic, with a wide black belt and blue or green trousers. Men wear green, pink or yellow baggy trousers and a blue jacket.
Lawa Hill Tribe
The Lawa people (pop.17,000) have inhabited Thailand since at least the 8th century and most Lawa villages look no diﬀerent from Thai settlements. But between Hot, Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son, the Lawa still live a largely traditional life. Unmarried Lawa women wear strings of orange and yellow beads, white blouses edged with pink, and tight skirts in parallel bands of blue, black, yellow and pink. All the women wear their hair tied in a turban.