Chiang Mai Hill Tribes


As Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai is a perfect stepping stone to view Northern Thailand’s spectacular scenery, access Laos and Burma, or travel the Mekong to China. Besides the temples and historical attractions of Chiang Mai, one of the big draws to Northern Thailand is the Hill Tribes.

These are the six main hill tribes of Northern Thailand. Many of these have subgroups which can be distinguished by their different costumes and dialects. The Lahu, Akha and Lisu have languages with common linguistic roots (Yi/Lolo of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages) and migrated into Thailand from Yunnan via Burma. The Hmong and Mien (or Yao) speak languages from the Sino-Tibetan family and came from south central China via Laos. These five tribes are all found in larger numbers beyond the borders of Thailand. The origin of the Karen is believed to have been southeast Tibet, but the majority now live in Myanmar (Burma). With the exception of the Karen, the hill-tribes did not start moving into the hills of Northern Thailand in large numbers until the 20th century. Some of the largest migrations did not take place until after political upheavals triggered by the communist and socialist revolutions of China (1949), Burma (1962) and Laos (1974).

Living in remote upland areas, the hill-tribes were left to practice subsistence agriculture relatively undisturbed until the 1950’s. Then their increasing numbers, their poverty and the threat of insurgency encouraged the government to exert greater control.

The National Committee for the Hill-tribes was formed in 1959 to “integrate the hill people into Thai society, while allowing them to preserve their culture”.

To really see the Hill Tribe villages, you need to spend a few days traveling from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son or Chiang Rai. However there are day tours to nearby villages in Chiang Dao – about 80 kms from Chiang Mai. Many of the Hill Tribes have settled down closer to Chiang Mai and become a part of the tourist trade. They supplement their income by selling souvenirs to the hoards of visiting tourists.


Here are the six main hill-tribes found in Northern Thailand


The Akha are believed to originate from S. China or Tibet. Linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman group and they are related to the Lolo tribes of Yunnan (S. China). The Hani tribe in Yunnan province is very similar to the Akha. Most Akha are to be found in Northern Burma, NW Laos and Northern Thailand; which would support the view that they migrated southwards from Tibet and China.
It is thought that the first Akha came to Thailand sometime in the nineteenth century and settled north of the Kok River. Since then they have moved southwards but the majority are still to be found in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces.

In Thailand there are 2 types of Akha; the U Lo and the Loimi. They can be distinguished by their costumes and headdress. The U Lo wear a conical headdress and generally have many more coloured pattern on the sleeves of their coat. The Loimi are easily recognisable by the distinctive metal plate on the back of the women’s headdress.

The Akha prefer to live at an elevation of over 1,000m. They practice shifting cultivation growing dry rice, corn, vegetables, peppers and beans. They also raise buffaloes, pigs and chickens.

Akha believe in spirits, including ancestor spirits, friendly and malicious spirits as well as many others. Spirit gates are found on the outside of every Akha village – there are two at opposite ends of the village. These gates protect the village from the many spirits outside.

In the Akha village an Akha man normally has one wife. In one house you will find an extended family living there but the house will be partly divided into, one section for the women and one for the men. Married couples will have a smaller house apart from the large family house.


The Yao (Mien), together with the Hmong are part of the Austro-Thai linguistic group. Yao culture has much in common with Chinese: they celebrate their New Year at the same time and use Chinese characters to record traditional songs and legends. Many of the Yao can also speak Yunnanese or Mandarin. The Yao can be found in Guangxi, Yunnan and Guangdong provinces of China, as well as Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand. In Thailand the majority of Yao live in Chiang Rai, Nan and Phayao provinces. The Yao belong to the Meo-Yao branch of the Austro-Thai linguistic group.

The Yao are the only hill tribe to have a written language, based on ancient Chinese characters. Their religion also originates from medieval Chinese Taoism and ancestor worship, although today, many have converted to Buddhism or Christianity. In the past, the main source of income of the Yao was growing opium. Nowadays, they have switched to planting rice, corn and fruits. They are friendly and peace-loving people (no, not hippies) and are known to peacefully resolve conflicts and pride themselves in cleanliness and honor.

Yao households normally consist of an extended family and like the Hmong, Yao men are allowed to take more than one wife. In the past, the Yao were highly mobile, always on the lookout for better land. The Yao set their villages at a high altitude and will not be sited beneath another tribe. The Yao women are skilled at needlework and one pair of trousers will take up their spare time for almost a year. Other items of costume are also embroidered, such as turbans, jackets, sashes and caps.

Traditional attire for a Yao woman is a turban, a long robe tied with a sash and the distinctive embroidered trousers. The neck of the robe is trimmed with red yarn ruffle. Like the Hmong , the Yao men are also very accomplished silversmiths and New Year is the time to see everyone adorned with silver (their symbol of wealth). As well as New Year the Yao weddings are huge ceremonies with special attire for the bride and groom as well as many ceremonies, great feasting and payments to be made. The headdress of the bride is one of the most spectacular features of the ceremony, when all the Yao dress in their finery. There are large costs to paid for a Yao wedding, feasting is done at the bride and then the grooms house, as well as the bride price to be paid. This makes a Yao wedding a very important undertaking and both the bride and the groom’s compatibility are checked by the Yao astrologers.

The easiest way to recognize the Yao tribe is from the women’s clothing. They wear big dark turbans decorated with embroidery, colorful beads and silver as well as distinctive black jackets with very bright red collars.



The Hmong are the second largest hill tribe and have a fiercely independent, nomadic nature. Originating in South Asia’s mountainous regions, they descended from the Miao – existing since the 3rd millennium. The Hmong can be subcategorised e.g. the White (Hmong Der), the Flower (Hmong Hoa) and the Green (Hmong Leng/Njua), whose languages, traditions and culture all vary.

Inhabiting Chiang Mai for four centuries, the Hmong believe in self-determination, uniting with communist rebels (1970’s) to fight the Pathet-Lao, during the Laotian Civil War. In spite of this warrior streak the Hmong are a deeply spiritual people who live off the land, sustainably supported through their beautiful handicrafts, especially embroidery and batiks.

The Hmong live in flat houses, in the centre of which lies a large fire where the daily meal is cooked. Theirs is a patrilineal society where men complete most of the work. At the day’s culmination the entire clan congregates around a fire for a session of folklore and tradition-telling like the creation of world and its hidden realities, with jokes, riddles and music.

Hmong houses are built on the ground in clusters, with several clusters forming a village. The oldest male controls the extended family household that will include married sons and their families. The Hmong are divided into clans, which play an important part in rituals and relationships.

The Hmong believe in a number of household spirits as well as souls. Rituals are performed by household heads, but each village will also have a shaman to exorcise evil spirits and restore health to the sick.

The pleated skirts made of hemp died with blue and white batik patterns make the Blue Hmong women clearly identifiable. The women’s jackets are made of black cloth decorated with elaborate embroidery for which the Hmong women are renowned. Men’s clothes are also made of loose-fitting black material, with embroidery on the jackets. The Hmong use silver both for adornment and as a show of wealth.


The Lahu have their origin in southwestern China. In about 1830 there were already some Lahu villages located in the Kengtung State of Burma. In the late 1800’s the Lahu migrated to Chiang Mai staying in close proximity to Burma, from Tibet via Yunnan. Lahu means tiger- baker/hunter and they excel at hunting and herbal medicinal knowledge.

They can be divided into 5 categories – recognizable by dress. The most populous (75%) are the Black Lahu, distinguished through black clothes covered in bold yet delicate embroidery. Women don black and red jackets whilst the men wear baggy blue trousers. Their main income is from vegetable cultivation as well as tea and coffee cultivation. This is supplemented by outstanding wooden crafts such as cross bows, musical instruments, woven baskets and cloth, with striking embroidery and batiks.

The Lahu inhabit stilted, hard wood/bamboo, partitioned houses with thatched roofs with a ladder into the central room where the family fire is. Being animist, Buddhist and Christian, the Lahu believe in the soul, household and other spirits as well as a ‘God’ like being, tended by village priests. During their New Year Festival Kin Wo, Lahu villagers sacrifice pigs daily to appease ghosts, singing and dancing all day and night (without alcohol!).

Thai’s call this tribe “Muser” because of their legendary skills at hunting in the forest.The tribeare concentrated close to the Burmese border west and north of Chiang Dao and Pai. Their houses are generally built on stilts, with villages consisting of 15-30 households.  Each household consists of families with unmarried children and maybe a married daughter and family.The Lahu believe in the soul, a house spirit, nature spirits and a supreme being who is administered to by a priest.

Traditional clothing of the tribe is black with bold embroidered patterns and bands of cloth for decoration. The trims of sleeves, pockets and lapels are often decorated, with each subgroup using different colors, however the tribe tend to wear ordinary clothes for everyday life, reserving their costumes for ceremonial occasions.




The Karen is the most numerous of the tribes numbering over 250,000, and are thought to have originated in Tibet. Thais refer to the Karen as Galiang. They live at between 800 and 1800 metres up in the mountainous, densely-forested region of Mae Hong Son due west of Chiang Mai,Chiang Mai and Lamphun and can also be found in Phrae, Chiang Rai and Lampang.

The Karen likes to settle in foothills, and live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which live their domestic animals: pigs, chickens, and buffaloes. They, like all the tribes, are skilled farmers who practice crop rotation, and they also hunt for game, with spears and crossbows, and use tame elephants to help them clear land.

The Karen do not recognise political borders and so have often in the past been caught between rebel forces and forced to feed & shelter them. They are subsistence farmers and their possessions are few. They have little or no furniture, sleep on floor mats and cook on open fires. Water for washing & drinking is drawn from the river. Karen silver has a reputation for being 99% silver, far purer than sterling silver, and is made into unique items of jewellery. The women are also skilled weavers and make beautiful clothes & handicrafts as well as skills in the distilling of alcohol.

The young women wear long white dresses and married women wear sarongs and shirts mostly in a red colour. These are woven by the tribewomen as well as bags and clothes for the men. You can often see the women working on their backstrap looms. Men are skilled at basket weaving and produce large baskets to store rice or clothes.

Karen settlements are normally at a lower altitude than other hilltribes – approx. 500m above sea level. They often reside in valley areas. Karen villages don’t move their location often, and many villages have been in the same place for hundreds of years. They have clear boundaries and rights over agricultural land and practice land rotation, leaving land fallow for recovery. They raise many kinds of domestic animals including elephants. The Karen are renowned for their skills with elephants.




The Lisu or Lisor originated from Yunnan and are divided into six original patrilineal clans, but not all are found in Thailand. Lisu villages can be found near Chiang Dao, Pai and Phrao. Villages vary in size, and houses may be raised on stilts or built on the ground. Extended families with married sons may live in the same house. The Lisu are competitive and thus are outgoing, social and hard-working. Lisu villages have a shrine for a guardian spirit set above the village. There are spirits for the ancestors and several other entities such as water, trees, the sun and the moon. Priests will officiate at ceremonies involving the village guardian, while shamans dispel spirits causing sickness.

The Lisu are located mostly in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces. They are thought to originate from S. China (and probably from Tibet before that), and they first came to Thailand approx. 80 years ago. There are also a large number in Burma who might of come south at the same time.The Lisu are part of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group and their culture is closely related to that of the Chinese. Their New Year is at the same time as the Chinese New Year and it is their biggest and most elaborate festival of the year.It is a time when they make offerings to ancestor spirits and the village guardian spirit. The most noticeable part of the festivities is the dancing that is held over a number of days, when everybody dresses up in their best finery. This is a time when community and clanship is consolidated. Some clans carry Chinese names.

Lisu costumes of the “flowery” sub-group found mainly in Thailand are very distinct. The women wear a knee length tunic of light blue or green cloth, often with red sleeves. The upper sleeves of the women’s tunic and a yoke of black cloth are heavily decorated with many bands of bright cloth. The women also wear plain belts from which hang multicolored tassels. Young men’s trousers are made of the same blue or green cloth, while their jackets are often of plain black material.



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