Impressions from the north of Thailand

Hill tribe people in Thailand

Hill tribe is a term used in Thailand for all of the various tribal peoples who migrated from China and Tibet over the past few centuries. They now inhabit the remote border areas between Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar . These areas are known for their thick forests and mountainous terrain.

The six major hill tribes within Thailand are the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien and Lisu, each with a distinct language and culture.

The Mien known as Yao

The Mien are commonly referred to as the Yao in Thailand. They originated from China.


Mien villages are small with up to 25 houses built on the ground. Households can be very large, consisting of extended families that include married sons and their families.

Local Costumes

Mien women wear a long black tunic with a bright red ruff around their neckline. Black trousers beneath the tunic are heavily embroidered. In addition they wear a black turban cloth embroidered at the ends.
Men wear loose black jackets which tend to be only lightly decorated and loose fitting black trousers

The Akha

The Akha are closely related to the Hani of China’s Yunnan province.
They are also known derogatorily in Thailand as the Gaw or the E-Gaw. The Akha originally came from Yunnan, moving into Burma in the mid-19th century. They come to Thailand until early in the 20th century.

The Akha are one of the dominant cultural influences in the area.


Akha villages are distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. The Akha live in raised houses, within which one small room is set aside for paying respect to ancestors.

Local Costumes

Akha clothing is made of a homespun cotton cloth died to near black with indigo. For women this cloth is full of embroidery and strips of coloured cloth decorated with coins, seeds or pieces of colourful yarn. Women’s costumes consist of hip lengh jackets, a short skirt, a sash, and leggings.
The most distinct item for women is the the headdress, which gets more elaborate as the wearer matures. Men tend to wear loose jackets that may have an embroidered strip down the front and back.

The Karen

The Pwakin-nyaw, known to many as Karen, are one of the largest hill tribes in Southeast Asia. They have a total population of about three million, spread throughout Burma, Laos and Thailand. The approximately 320,000 Karen in Thailand comprise half of the country’s total hill tribe population.
Mostly they are located in Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Tak and Kanchanaburi.
The Karen tribe originate from Burma and the Thai-Burma border area. Over the past century they have moved further into Thailand to avoid political unrest.

While the Karen still practice slash and burn farming as other hill tribes do, they differ in that they live in permanent villages at lower elevations and have been aggressive in developing environmentally sustainable terraced rice fields. These factors have allowed the Karen to better integrate themselves into Thai society.

The Lisu

The Lisu originated from Yunnan and are divided into six original patrilineal clans, but not all are found in Thailand.


Village vary in size, and houses may be raised on stilts or built on the ground.

Lisu village has a spirit house, and each house has a small shrine to spirits an ancestors.
In addition, because the Lisu are the "engineers" among the Hilltribes, most of their villages feature a large bamboo pipe, a conduit, that carries to the village water from the nearest source.

Local Costumes

The woman wear a knee length tunic of light blue or green cloth, often with red sleeves. The upper sleeves of woman’s tunic and yoke of black cloth are heavily decorated with many bands of bright cloth. The women also wear plain belts from which hang multi-coloured tassels. Young men’s trousers are made of the same blue or green cloth, while their jackets are often of plain black material.

The Hmong

Hmong are divided into two groups in Thailand; the Blue Hmong and the White Hmong.


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.

Local Costumes

Traditional clothing of the Hmong. The women’s skirts are made of hemp died with blue and white batik patterns. 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

The Lahu are divided into two groups; the Black Lahu from over 75 percent of the Lahu and consists of three subgroups - the Lahu Na, the Red Lahu and Shehlen Lahu. A second group is know as the Yellow Lahu or muser.
The Lahu (Muser) obviously pride themselves on their skills in hunting and trapping. They are also famous for their knowledge of herbal medicine.


Houses are generally built on stilts, with villages consisting of 15 - 30 households. Households consist of families with unmarried children and maybe a married daughter and family.

Local Costumes

Traditional clothing of the Lahu is black with bold embroidered patterns and bands of cloth for sleaves, pockets and lapels are often decorated, with each subgroup using different colours.