Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand is rightly famous for the Hill Tribe communities who live throughout the region and they are of course a huge draw for travellers keen to learn about and experience their culture and way of life. Venture just a few minutes from Chiang Mai city and you can soon find yourself in villages where Thai is no longer the first language and you can notice that the people look and dress differently and that’s definitely one of the charms of exploring this amazing part of the world.
There are 6 main ethnic Hill Tribe groups in Thailand today – with several other smaller groups and sub groups – and the vast majority live in the mountains earning their living as farmers. Life is not always easy for these ethnic groups with many treated as ‘outsiders’, denied full citizenship rights and not having full ownership of rights over their land despite having been settled in the region for hundreds of years or more. However, one thing that many of the Hill Tribe communities have in common is a genuine warmth and openness to visitors and that strong and stoic character that so many mountain people around the world have.
A quick overview of the main different Hill Tribe groups in Northern Thailand
The largest group of Hill Tribe people in Thailand and Karen communities are spread throughout the North of Thailand and even as far South as the mountains of Kaeng Krachan all the way past Bangkok. There are four main sub-groups of Karen people – ‘White’, ‘Red’, ‘Pa-o’ and ‘Kayah’ – each with their own distinct language, culture and customs.
You’ll find Karen communities all throughout the mountains of Chiang Mai and whilst historically they tended to practise slash and burn agriculture, more recently Karen communities have been at the forefront of developing more environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Karen communities tend to be very welcoming to visitors, keen to share their story and culture and having the opportunity to spend a night or two in a Karen community, sitting around the fire, sharing food and tales and leaning about life in the mountains is a fantastic Northern Thailand experience.
Note: Many people associate Karen people with the ‘long neck’ Paduang women. These women are Karen but a small subsection of the ethnic group as a whole. Whilst many people are very keen to visit a ‘long neck’ village, please take great care to treat the women with respect and not regard them as exhibits in a zoo.
One of the best known Hill Tribes in Thailand with around 70-80,000 people living in the mountains. The Akha traditional dress is very colourful with amazing headwear, fantastic to see worn in a tiny village high in the mountains.
Historically the Akha people were strongly associated with the growing of opium in Northern Thailand but as this practice has been largely eradicated, they have successfully transitioned to growing a range of crops, including some of the very best coffee anywhere in Thailand.
The Lahu people are a very diverse group with a large number of sub-groups and cultures throughout the mountain areas of South East Asia. With around 60,000 Lahu people in Thailand, they tend to live in the higher mountains of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, often in more remote settlements away from roads and towns.
Primarily subsistence farmers, the Lahu are also well known as hunters and warriors. The Lahu people have strict community rules and respect for village elders and also have a high degree of gender equality throughout the community.
Lisu people are originally from Tibet. Under pressure from the Chinese government and seeking land to enable them to have the freedom to continue their culture they migrated South to Myanmar and then into Thailand. Lisu people practise a combination of worshipping ancestors and spirits.
The Lisu people tend to live in villages above 1,000 metres and communities are often found near mountain summits or at the base of waterfalls.
It’s estimated that there are around 50,000 Lisu people throughout the mountains of Northern Thailand.
The first Hmong villages in Thailand were established in the early 19th Century as the moved out of China after conflict with the Han Chinese people and they are now found throughout much of Northern Thailand. With a large number of sub-groups they were traditionally associated with the cultivation of opium which has now been replaced with other cash crops such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries.
There are large Hmong communities in Chiang Mai province, famously high up above Wat Doi Suthep and also around Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain.
Like many of the other Hill Tribe groups, the Yao people migrated from China and arrived in Thailand around the beginning of the 19th Century. With communities throughout much of the North, they are most concentrated in Chiang Rai province where many fled persecution from the Pathet Lao regime in the 1970’s after they had supported the US in the Laos civil war.
Whilst largely following the Buddhist way of life, the Yao people also mix their traditional animist beliefs in with their practice of Buddhism.
There are around 40,000 Yao people in Thailand today spread amongst 200 or so village communities.
Visiting Hill Tribe communities
If you travel pretty much anywhere in Northern Thailand you will come across Hill Tribe communities and you only need to head a few minutes out of Chiang Mai city to find relatively large Hmong and Karen villages. Some of the villages very close to the city have become a bit ‘touristy’, particularly the Hmong village just a couple of km’s above Wat Doi Suthep. But it’s not hard to head a little further afield and come across far more ‘authentic’ communities although do remember that the Hill Tribe people are not museum exhibits – like most people around the world they are developing and changing quickly and don’t be surprised, particularly nearly large towns, to see Hill Tribe people with smart phones and pick up trucks.
However, if you’re prepared to travel deep into the mountains there are still large number of Hill Tribe communities living lives very similar to how they have for generations. As many are still marginalised within Thailand, living deep into the mountains allows them to live largely as they wish although they often haven’t benefitted from the modernisation of the rest of the country so often don’t have access to good education, electricity or even running water. This might be an amazing opportunity for travellers to experience this way of life but isn’t always what the Hill Tribe people themselves wish for – after all, parents around the world all seek opportunity and development for the next generation.
Spend a couple of hours browsing the internet and you’ll see huge numbers of trips purporting to offer you the chance to visit ‘authentic’ Hill Tribe communities. As a rule of thumb – although not always the case – the harder it is to get to and the longer the trek or more difficult the journey, the most traditional and ‘authentic’ the village will be.
The Tuk Tuk Club spends time in Karen and other Hill Tribe communities on our 3 day (we spend 1 night camping just outside a Karen village high in the hills and cook and eat together with the community around a campfire), 5 day and 11 day adventures giving you a great opportunity to experience Hill Tribe culture and custom and to learn about the lives of the people in Thailand’s mountain areas.
If you’d like to get even deeper into Hill Tribe culture and life there are three outstanding organisations that offer amazing experiences that are run with great respect and care for the communities they visit – unfortunately not always the case with all operators.
To spend 2-3 nights with a very remote mountain Karen community high in the mountains of Tak Province have a look at this amazing adventure from the Mahouts Elephant Foundation. The village where you stay has only recently opened up to visitors and is about as traditional as you can get – a truly incredible experience
Chai Lai Orchid – a small resort just 90 minutes or so from Chiang Mai city – is a stunning place to stay perched on a hill overlooking a Karen community. Staffed by people from various Hill Tribe groups and set up to deliver opportunities and training for Hill Tribe women, not only can you learn about the different ethnic groups of the mountains but you’re also directly contributing to their training and development
Green Trails is a leading small scale travel company based in Chiang Mai run by one of the most knowledgeable people about Thailand’s Hill Tribes that there is. They offer a number of multi-day hikes and trips deep into the mountain communities and all are managed with great respect and sensitivity to the local people.
Whatever you choose to do during your time in Northern Thailand, do make sure to spend some time exploring the Hill Tribe communities and culture of the region. You’re guaranteed and fascinating experience and a taste of what travel really is all about!
For more information and articles all about Northern Thailand to help you get ready for the adventure of a lifetime have a look here