Thailand’s northern hill tribes represent a diverse culture (video)

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Situated in the mountainous north of the country, the hill tribes of Thailand are perhaps the most diversified, varied and accessible of all of the worlds mountain people and provide the visitor with a rare insight into the life, customs and traditions of the various groups’ culture.

The thatched roofs of the Akha hill tribe village, in northern Thailand
The thatched roofs of the Akha hill tribe village, in northern Thailand Sputnikcccp

Comprising the Akha, Daraang, Karen, Kachin, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, Miabri, Mien (Yao), Mizo, and Moken, the villages retain many traditional aspects of the tribes’ cultures, and also reflect the minority status these races have in a country of 63 million people.

The majority of Thailand’s hill tribes are believed to have originated from Tibet or China and progressively migrated through Indochina over the last 200 to 300 years. As a result, many of the hill tribes found in Thailand can also be found in neighboring countries, including Burma, China, India, Laos, and Vietnam.

While it is easy to apply the term Hill tribe as an all encompassing term for all of the mountain dwelling minority groups, to do so is a great disservice to the people, who all practice their own individual customs, cultures, traditions, and languages.

Ethnic minority groups

The Karen best known for the neck rings worn by their women and girls
The Karen best known for the neck rings worn by their women and girls Diliff

Though there are dozens of individual societies living in the rugged mountains of Thailand’s north, the six largest tribes and the ones most visitors have contact with are the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Mien (Yao).

Previously all of the hill tribes practiced slash and burn agriculture, with many of them also having been involved in opium cultivation. However, increasing conservation and drug enforcement policies, coupled with projects initiated under the patronage of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, along with several commercial ventures such as Doi Chang Coffee, has seen many of the tribes abandon these practices and change to farming cash crops for sale at local markets.

Thanks to the growth of of eco-tourism and trekking tours, it is now even easier for visitors to the North of Thailand to gain a first-hand insight into the daily lives of these ancient civilizations. While some tours spend just a short period of time with the various hill tribe communities, others are available that allow visitors to stay for longer periods and spend time improving the living conditions building houses, community centers, or teaching English.

Diverse culture, customs and language

The six largest hill tribes of Northern Thailand are:


The Akha are a hill tribe of subsistence farmers known for their artistry. They are believed to have originated in Mongolia about 1,500-years ago and began arriving in Thailand in the early 20th century. There are believed to be about 80,000 Akha now living in Thailand’s northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.


The Lahu hill tribe originally lived on the Tibetan plateau and migrated gradually to Yunnan
The Lahu hill tribe originally lived on the Tibetan plateau and migrated gradually to Yunnan Maxpatrick

Believed to have been the original inhabitants of the Yellow River valley in China, the Hmong live in the mountainous regions of Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Hmong are also one of the sub-groups of the Miao ethnicity in southern China

Widely known for having fought against the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao during the Secret War in Laos, there are an estimated 150,000 Hmong living in Thailand, 800,000 in Vietnam and 500,000 in Laos.

Of all the hill tribes in Thailand, the Hmong are amongst the most integrated and successful in Thai society.


The Karen, also known as the Kariang or Yang, make up about 15 percent of the Burmese population and are best known for the neck rings worn by women from the Kayan or Padaung tribe of Karen people living along the border region of Burma and Thailand.

There is an estimated 400,000 Karen living in Thailand, making them by far the largest of the hill tribes.


The Lahu people are an ethnic group found throughout Southeast Asia with about 450,000 living in China’s Yunnan province and an estimated 100,000 living in Thailand.

The Lahu divide themselves into a number of subgroups, including the Lahu Na (Black Lahu), Lahu Nyi (Red Lahu), Lahu Hpu (White Lahu), Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu) and the Lahu Shehleh, where the name refers to the traditional color of their dress.


The Lisu people are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group consisting of more than 58 different clans who inhabit the mountainous regions of Burma, Southwest China, Thailand, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

There is an estimated approximately 55,000 Lisu living in Thailand, where the best-known subgroup, the Flowery Lisu, are known for the brightly colored clothes – a multicolored knee-length tunic of red, blue or green with a wide black belt and blue or black pants – worn by Lisu women.

Mien (Yao):

The Lisu people are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group consisting of more than 58 different clans
The Lisu people are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group consisting of more than 58 different clans John Le Fevre

The history of the Mien (Yao) can be traced back to 5th century BC and for the last 2,000 years there is evidence of them living in the mountains around Tibet. Related to the lowland-living Lanten people of Laos and Vietnam, the Mien (Yao) are believed to have begun migrating from Hunan province in China during the 15th and 16th century before moving into what is now northern Vietnam, northern Laos and northern Thailand.

Similar to the Hmong, many Mien (Yao) served as soldiers in the CIA-sponsored Secret War in Laos, fighting against the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao.

There are more than 40,000 Mien (Yao) living in 173 villages in Northern Thailand, with larger populations in neighboring Laos, Vietnam and China.



Feature video VisitAmazingThailand



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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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