Thailand is home to several minority groups that are often referred to as Hilltribes. Most of these minorities have migrated into Thailand over the last 100 years from the surrounding countries as refugees. Many of the hilltribes live in the mountainous region of Thailand and have now made their lifestyle around farming and tourism.
There are many different tribes in Thailand divided in many sub-categories, each with their own culture, language and customs. There are seven distinct hill tribe groups: The Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, Akha, and Padaung. These groups bring a unique culture into Thailand which is popular with tourists. The groups can be recognized from each other by their unique and colourful clothes.
Opium cultivation has been a major source of income for many of the hill tribes until the Royal project initiated by his Highness King Rama IX successfully substituted the opium with other crops such as vegetables and fruit.
While some of the minority groups have fully integrated in the Thai society and have obtained Thai citizenship, a large number of them are still considered as refugees. Some of the minorities also leave the Thai refugee camps and migrate to other regions in the world which is slowly breaking up their identity as their own ethnic group.
Because of the influences from Thailand and other cultures they are also at risk of losing their indigenous customs and languages.
An Akha girl wearing a tratitional headdress. Photo by: Veton PICQ
You can find many of the Akha in Chiang Rai province. The Akha came to Thailand in the early 20th century, mainly due to the civil war in Burma. The entrances of Akha villages are marked with a spirit gate that divides the town (the domain of man and domesticated animals), from the outside (the domain of spirits and wildlife).
The Akha people are often noted for their very recognizable clothing. Akha 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 headdresses worn by the women are perhaps the most spectacular which are in adorned with all kinds of eye-catching paraphernalia, such as coins, beads and shells. Headdresses are decorated by their owner and each is unique. In Thailand you will most likely see Akha villagers in full traditional garb in areas that have many tourists.
This is the largest of the minority groups and most of the Karen live in the neighbouring country Myanmar. A large number of the Karen now live in refugee camps in the west of Thailand near the Myanmar border. There is no exact number of the amount of Karen living in Thailand as many of them are not registered in Thailand but the estimate is around 300.000 people. Their livelihood mainly consists of agriculture, including rice cultivation.
The majority of the Karen are Buddhists who also practice animism. About one-third of the Karen population has been converted to Christianity.
The Karen traditionally wear colourful v-neck tunics and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics.
Three young Hmong girls at Doi Pui in Thailand.
This is the second-largest hill tribe group in Thailand and they are originally from China. They sought asylum in other Asian countries including Laos. During The Vietnam War, the United States recruited the Hmong from Laos to fight on their side. After the war, many of the Hmong from Laos fled into Thailand and the United States. The Hmong in Thailand are now mainly in the Northern and Eastern regions of the country. There are several sub-groups of Hmong in Thailand distinctive from each other by slight variations in their language and the way they dress, depending on which province they originally came from.
The religion of the Hmong is largely animistic and they practice shamanism and worship their ancestors. Their livelihood depends on agriculture, hunting and foraging.
The Lahu in Thailand have a similar origin as the Hmong in Thailand. After migrating from China into Laos, they were recruited by the United States to fight on their side during the Vietnam war. After the war they then fled into Thailand out of fear of retribution from the Laos communist government.
In Thailand, they live near the Myanmar border. Their religion is polytheistic. During the 17th century Buddhism was introduced to them which then became widespread amongst them.
Originally from Tibet, there are now approximately 55000 Lisu in Thailand. The women of the Lisu are distinguished by their brightly coloured tunics, worn over long pants. Some of the older generation continue to wear tasselled turbans on their heads.
Also known as the Yao, they are originated from China and are distant linguistic relatives of the Hmong. The Mien live in small isolated villages mostly in and around Chiang Rai and Nan. The Mien women wear long black jackets that are adorned with pom-pom like red trim. They are skilled embroiderers and silversmiths.
A Kayan woman weaving. Photo by: Brian Jeffery Beggerly
The Padaung (Kayan Lahwi) are a subgroup of the Kayan people. The term Padaung comes from the Shan language which is spoken in Myanmar and some parts in Thailand. The people of this tribe however refer to themselves as Kayan and prefer to be called that way. They fled prosecution in Mayan and are now residing in the Mae Hong Son province in the north of Thailand. The women of the tribe traditionally wear brass rings around the neck which lower the collarbones, giving the neck a stretched appearance. According to some stories the rings would give protection to the women, but they are more likely worn to distinguish themselves from the other tribes. A lot of girls from the younger generation don’t wear the rings anymore so they can better merge into the Thai society. The refugee camps where the women still wear the brass rings have become really popular with tourists.