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Introduction to the Hill Tribes of Thailand
Concentrated mostly in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, they entered what is now Thailand in different waves since the 18th century, but especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally from southern China, the Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Karen tribes entered through Burma, while the Hmong and Yao tribes via Laos. These are the six main groups. The Karen tribe is the most numerous ethnic group, mainly due to the fact that established first to Thailand after having to flee Burma due to the repression suffered there.
The Padong tribe, the famous giraffe women
Some people also distinguish the Padong tribe, whose women are known as “giraffe women”, as a different ethnic group, but in reality they are a subgroup of the Karen. In total, it is estimated that in the North of Thailand there are about 750,000 people who belong to ethnic minorities, but the actual census is difficult to know since many are not registered.
it is estimated that in the North of Thailand there are about 750,000 people who belong to ethnic minorities
Before going into the detail of the characteristics of each of the mountain tribes, it is convenient to stop and comment on important aspects common to all of them, which are often at the origin of certain cultural prejudices, which prevent a real integration. Let’s not confuse assimilation with real integration. The main difference is that the second one also respects their cultural diversity.
The territory changes, the culture remains
First you have to understand that the hill tribes of Thailand create their identity based on their culture, beliefs, traditions and language, but not based on the territory where they live, which is discontinuous, and shared with other ethnic groups and changing.
For example, it is said that for the hill tribes the Mekong River that separates Laos and Thailand or the mountains that separate Burma and Thailand are just natural corridors of displacement rather than natural borders. The porosity of the forest between Burma and Thailand and its geographical continuity means that these semi-nomadic populations put down new roots in the any valley without being aware – or without giving it too much importance – that they have crossed a border.
Slash-and-burn agriculture culture, an ecological problem?
Another important aspect is that they have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture , that means, they cut down trees and burn the low forest to fertilize the land, cultivate it for a few years and then move to another area where they cut and burn again. This ancestral practice is seen from many as the main cause of deforestation in the northern mountains and is increasingly prohibited and controlled by the authorities.
However, different academic studies show that, under stable demographic conditions that allow the regeneration of the burned forest, this practice is ecologically sustainable, and, in fact, other areas of Thailand such as Isan, where extensive agriculture with agrochemicals has been practiced, have been deforested almost entirely for a long time.
Talking to Akha friends about this problem, they have explained to me that, for example, they cut trees to a height that allows them to grow back relatively soon, or that there are certain areas of forest that are sacred to them that they cannot cut and that, curiously, they coincide with the areas likely to be flooded in the rainy season if they were cut down. The problem with this traditional method of farming arises when population pressure intensifies. In this region, Thai farmers or logging companies, with the complicity of the authorities, are occupying more and more mountainous terrain practicing modern agricultural methods and cutting down trees, thus reducing the amount of forest that can be used by ethnic minorities.
Traditionally animistic, but lately Christian
Another characteristic of the hill tribes is their belief systems. The tribes of Thailand, although each one has its peculiarities, traditionally share animism – the belief in spirits of nature -, the cult of ancestors and their spirits and practice rituals with animal sacrifices. This type of belief is considered primitive by the official Buddhist religion, although it is tolerated.
However, Christian missionaries, especially North American evangelists, see diabolical signs in many rituals and have displayed a special desire to convert these populations to Christianity, with quite a success.
It is estimated that more than half of these peoples are now Christian. The conflictive thing about this change of beliefs is to see hill tribes groups divided in two, the converted and those who resist, or the blackmail that is used by investing large amounts of money in a school, for example, in exchange for them to convert. Or, probably the worse consequence, the fact that all the accumulated wisdom to survive in close contact with nature, in a sustainable way, with the knowledge of countless natural remedies for all kinds of diseases, is lost when changing the system of beliefs.
It is estimated that more than half of the hill tribes are now Christian. The conflictive thing about this change in beliefs is seeing peoples divided in two, the converted and those who resist…
Tribal ethnic groups and opium cultivation
Finally, we must mention the cultivation of opium, traditionally the harvest that allowed them to trade and exchange other products, especially with Chinese merchants. Since 1959 it has been prohibited in Thailand, although its consumption and individual cultivation by older people and on ceremonial occasions is tolerated. As an alternative, tea and coffee crops were introduced, which at least help reduce losses. But what has survived in the imaginary of the dominant Thai culture is the prejudice of associating tribal ethnic groups with drug use and trafficking.
Ultimately, the mix between geographical peculiarities and nomadism, together with prejudices towards traditional cultivation and belief systems, contribute to making the integration of these minorities in Thailand problematic. They are considered foreigners or, at best, second-rate Thais who must be assimilated and indoctrinated into the dominant culture. And while it is true that they have strictly entered Thailand from Burma and Laos, it is also true that they are the indigenous people of that vast area known as the Greater Mekong, which includes the extensive mountain ranges of northern Thailand, northwestern Laos, eastern Burma and southern China.
At present, for example, it is estimated that almost half of the population of these ethnic groups do not have recognized Thai nationality, thus making it difficult for them to access the labor market, mobility, aid for public education or shopping and sale of land. Many times they are evicted from the lands they have been cultivating for years without any compensation, or they are detained at a police checkpoint and have to spend a few days in jail.
… It is estimated that almost half of the population of these ethnic groups do not have Thai nationality, thus hindering their access to the labor market…
For these reasons they seek the support of associations and people who, on the one hand, value their ancestral culture and natural wisdom and, on the other, contribute to invigorate their habitats with economic alternatives that allow them to survive their growing acculturation. By raising their self-esteem and their standard of living, it is possible that the dominant Thai culture and its authorities begin to see them more positively and endow them with rights comparable to those of the rest of the population with whom they live, taking their regularization as Thai citizens more seriously.
The ethnic group of the Karen
They are the largest ethnic minority in Thailand, some 350,000 people. They have lived in Burma for centuries but since the 18th century they began to enter Thailand, fleeing the conflict with the Burmese military government. They have spread not only to the north but also to the entire western border with Burma, forming villages as far as in Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok. They are the tribe that live at the lowest altitude and very frequently in the valleys.
Their economy is based on the cultivation of rice in terraces, fruits and vegetables, they raise chickens, pigs and buffaloes, they are hunters and traditionally they have also domesticated and used elephants to transport logs in the jungle. Most elephant camps in northern and western Thailand are run by the Karen.
Like the other tribal ethnic groups in Thailand, they are animists. They believe in the Lord of Earth and Water, who intervenes in all natural phenomena. However, since the 20th century most of the Karen have been converted to Christianity, although they retain their sacrificial rituals to appease the spirits and ensure their protection. Together with the Lahu they are the only matrilineal ethnic group – descent is defined by maternal line and the husbands go to live with the woman. Women have an important social role, being the oldest in a village who conducts many rituals.
The Padong, with their well-known “giraffe” or “long-necked” women, are a subgroup of the Karen. They began to enter Thailand in the 1980s and there are currently about 500 in five towns, concentrated in Mae Hong Son province. In Burma there are about 30,000. When a girl turns 5 years old, the first five rings are put on her neck and thereafter one ring will be added each year. Contrary to popular belief, the earrings can be removed when required and nothing happens to them, as the muscle atrophy is mild. In recent decades they have become a tourist attraction, often too intrusive, and the hoops are often put on when tourists come.
The Padong, with their well-known “giraffe women…… have become a tourist attraction, often too invasive.
The Hmong tribe
There are about 160,000 Hmong people in Thailand. Several subgroups are distinguished such as the white, green or black Hmong. They have been living in China for 3,000 years. From 1850 they began to migrate to Laos and in 1880 to Thailand. There was a great migration to northern Thailand in 1975 when the Laos Communist Party, against which they had fought, won. Many also migrated to the USA.
Its economy is like that of the other hill tribes, based on the cultivation of rice, vegetables and fruits and the raising of chickens and pigs. They had traditionally grown opium as well until it was banned in Thailand. Their villages are usually near the peaks, between 1000 and 1500 meters, higher than those of other ethnic groups.
They are also animists and believe in various spirits inside the house. Like many other ethnic groups, each village has a shaman, man or woman, who goes into a trance to communicate with the spirits when he has to heal someone. They believe that each person has three souls that are separated in death, one goes to paradise, another remains in the grave and the third is reincarnated. Polygamy is accepted. If the first wife gives her consent and the man has sufficient resources, he can have a second and even a third wife.
Polygamy is accepted. If the first wife gives her consent and the man has sufficient resources, she can have a second and even a third
The Lahu ethnic group
There are about 105,000 Lahu people in Thailand, divided into 5 large groups with their respective dialects. In all of Southeast Asia there are about 750,000, especially in Burma and Yunnan, southern China, where they originate. They began to enter Thailand at the end of the 19th century.
Like the other ethnic groups, they cultivate mountain rice, a dry variety, and they also cultivated opium that they have now substituted for fruits with which they manage to trade. They also raise pigs and chickens, hunt small mammals, and gather plants in the jungle.
Like the Karen, it is a matrilineal society with strong matriarchal traits. Men do most of the work in the fields or the jungle, as well as various domestic tasks, while women concentrate on taking care of the children. They do not have a family name and their relationships are based on cooperation and friendship.
They believe in a couple of creator gods, Geusha and A Ema. They are also animists and make offerings to the spirit of the house to protect them. They believe that nature spirits can possess a person and make them sick. Then the shaman is needed to perform an exorcism. Although a large part have converted to Christianity, they still perform animistic ceremonies. The New Year, towards the end of January, is the most important celebration, they perform various animal sacrifices, predict the future of the town and play their traditional instruments and dance, for several days.
They do not have a family name and their relationships are based on cooperation and friendship
The tribe of the Akha people
In Thailand there are an estimated 70,000 Akha people. There are also different subgroups, with three being the main ones: Loimi, Ulo and Pami. There are also important communities in the north of Laos, Burma, North Vietnam and especially in Yunnan, China, where they are known as Hani, and where they are from. In the 19th century they began to emigrate to Burma, where there are still 320,000 people, and at the beginning of the 20th they entered Thailand, settling mainly in the province of Chiang Rai.
Its economy is based, like the rest of the ethnic groups, on the cultivation of mountain rice, vegetables, fruits and the raising of pigs, chickens and water buffalo. They also abandoned opium cultivation, replacing it with coffee and tea.
When someone dies, his spirit travels to the world of the ancestors. During the ceremony, a relative, generally the son, recites the names of his ancestors, up to 60 previous generations, which gives an idea of their ancient culture, preserved to this day. They are also animists and believe in the goddess Apu Miyeh as the creator of all humanity and of various cultures.
When someone dies, his spirit travels to the world of the ancestors. During the ceremony, a relative, generally the son, recites the names of his ancestors, up to 60 previous generation…
An Akha village can be identified because it has a sacred gate, built from the trunks of 3 trees and which is renewed every year. The door separates the world of spirits from that of humans and, to be clear, next to the door they sculpt two wooden figures, man and woman, with exaggerated genitalia. Another characteristic element is a large swing, built each year with three pieces of wood, with which they swing during a festival that takes place before the rice harvest.
Some important figures in the Akha world are the priest who is in charge of the rituals, the blacksmith, the village chief and the shaman, usually a woman, who tries to heal the sick with herbs and trips to the spirit world. However today many Akha have converted to Christianity.
The traditional costume of women is very peculiar and distinctive. It consists of a long-sleeved jacket, blouse, knee-length skirt and leggings in bright colors. They also wear a hat highly ornamented with pieces of metal, shells and feathers, which has a different shape according to the Akha subgroup.
The Yao ethnic group
There are about 45,000 Yao people in Thailand. They are also called Mien or Iu Mien. Originally from southern China, they began migrating to Laos in the 19th century, fleeing repression from the Chinese government. In the early twentieth century, they entered Thailand from Laos, first settling in Nan and Phayao provinces.
As other hill tribes, their economy is based on planting rice, sweet corn, vegetables, and raising chickens and pigs.
The Yao believe they are descendants of a hero or god, Pien Hung, who came across the ocean. They make offerings to the spirits of the rivers, trees and the earth, responsible for diseases and reduced harvests. They also honor ancestors through rituals led by the priest. Another important figure is the shaman, who is responsible for the healing ceremonies, and the village chief, who presides over the council of elders.
The tribe of the Lisu
There are about 38,000 Lisu people in Thailand. They are believed to originally come from northwestern Yunnan, China, and eastern Tibet. They first settled in the Shan states of Burma and entered Thailand in the late 19th century.
Its economy is similar to that of the other tribal ethnic groups, based on the cultivation of rice, vegetables, raising chickens and pigs and hunting small mammals. They are divided into 12 clans and marriage between members of the same clan is prohibited. The men court the woman by reciting poems and when they decide to marry, the man “kidnaps” the woman, with her consent, and sends an emissary to her father to negotiate the amount of her dowry.
The men court the woman by reciting poems and when they decide to marry, the man “kidnaps” the woman, with her consent, and sends an emissary to her father to negotiate the amount of her dowry.
They are animists and worship the ancestors. They believe in a god of gods, Wu Sa, who determines the day of each person’s death by sending him a letter. They also have the figure of the priest, who directs the animal sacrifices before the altar of the spirits of the people, and that of the shaman, who goes into a trance to communicate with the ancestors interceding for someone sick. They also have a village chief who arbitrates in disputes.
They build houses of two types, raised off the ground using wooden poles at lower altitudes, and directly on the ground to keep them warmer, at higher altitudes.
Ethnic groups in danger of extinction
All this cultural diversity is in danger of extinction in Thailand. Due to various factors such as globalization and the uniformity that it entails, the migration of youth to cities in search of a higher standard of living, the lack of rights associated with a legal situation of lack of protection, cultural prejudices that generate a low self-esteem, demographic pressures, Christian conversion campaigns or assimilation policies practiced by the authorities, the ethnic minorities of northern Thailand are progressively abandoning their genuine cultures and the ancestral wisdom inherent in them. This represents a significant loss not only for these societies but for all humanity.
…the ethnic minorities of northern Thailand are progressively abandoning their genuine cultures…
The documentary Akha on the border
This great documentary, made by Jacobo Sucari and J.M. Romero, will bring you closer to the reality of current Akha culture in an entertaining way and with great audiovisual quality. Wathcing it is essential for those of you planning a trek through the tribal villages of Thailand. Watch it will make you value much more the experience of visiting these centuries-old tribes that, unfortunately, today are on the edge of the existential abyss.
If the following video doesn’t work you can watch it here.
How to visit these ethnic villages?
From Mundo Nómada Travel, and in a former association with the NGO Udutama, we offer the possibility of spending one or two nights in one of the many tribal villages around Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai, the northernmost city in Thailand, is less visited than Chiang Mai and that makes the ethnic villages in its surroundings lesser known. In our trekkings through the north of Thailand you rarely meet other tourists.
Xavi Tió, the author of this article
This article has been written by our friend Xavi Tió. Xavi is a Catalan graduate in Physics and Philosophy who, upon early retirement, decided to settle in Thailand, a country that he already knew from his various trips and from his solidarity initiative founding the NGO Udutama. This NGO was dedicated, among other things, to grant scholarships to young people of tribal ethnic groups in Thailand by paying for their studies in the city so they could come back better prepared to help their villages.