Over the centuries, driven from their native countries by civil war, the northern hill tribes of Thailand have migrated from Laos, Burma, Vietnam and also China. Approximately 500 000 people are located in the upper northern regions of Thailand namely Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and also Mae Hong Son where they make a living from agriculture. Those in the lower valleys farm corn and rice while the ones living in the higher altitudes make a living from poppy cultivation.
Though they only account for 2% of the population they are certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest tourist attraction of north. Thousands of visitors flock to Chiang Mai and the mountains each year to meet them, learn about their way of life and culture and to stay in their villages. They are a friendly people, conservative and welcoming.
The hill tribes are renowned for their jewelery making, basket making and an array of other handicraft. By supporting them and buying their goods, we can help sustain these people in different ways, helping the Thai government at the same time by creating a market for their goods. The tribes can typically be divided into six groups namely the Karen, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Lisu and Akha. Each of these has their own language, culture, religion, heritage and clothing.
The Karen is by far the biggest of the six tribes, approximately 270 000, and seems to originate primarily from Burma. They started arriving during the 18th century and are still today entering Thailand. Their religion is predominantly Buddhist though many have over the years converted to Christianity.
There are approximately 80 000 Hmong in the north. They are also known as the Meo, and is the 2nd largest of the tribes and originate from Laos. The Hmong is nomadic with strong cultural similarities with the Chinese. They primarily cultivating poppy, but is also known for their ability to breed live stock.
The Mien accounts for 30 000 and are also found in countries like Vietnam and Laos. In Thailand the Mien people primarily settled in Chiang Rai, Lampheng Provinces and Phayao. Their traditional clothing is distinct consisting of black shirts rimmed with red, grey printed trousers as well as black turbans.
The Lahu live mainly in the highlands around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. They are known for their hunting skills and are talented musicians.
The Lisu can be identified for their love of bright colored clothing and jewelry making. They originate from Burma and live mainly in Chiang Rai.
The Akha, also known as the Kaw originate from Burma (Myanmar) and seem to be the biggest attraction of all the tribes. Go there and find out why.