What should you know about major hill tribes in Thailand

What should you know about major hill tribes in Thailand

Thailand is a land of many colours. Besides its breathtaking sceneries and alluring tourist spots, one thing that makes Thailand so unique is its cultural diversity. Thailand encompasses about 70 ethnic groups and tribes from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, living with peace and harmony. Of all these different ethnic groups, one group that has gained a fair amount of attention from tourists worldwide is the group of ‘hill tribes’ in Thailand. Over the years, these hill tribes have sparked a great deal of curiosity among tourists. And, if you are visiting Thailand to explore their cultural diversity, here is what you should know about the hill tribes in Thailand.

What is a hill tribe?

‘Hill tribe’ is a term used for ethnic groups living in the high land areas of northern and western parts of Thailand. They are the minority groups that migrated from countries like Laos, China and Myanmar and ended up being farmers in the north of Thailand. There are about 7 major hill tribes of Thailand, each has their own unique culture, customs and languages.

The major hill tribes of Thailand are,

  • Akha

The Akha tribe has its roots originating from Tibet, while the majority lives in the Yunnan province in South West China and northern Thailand.

Akha women are renowned for their traditional costumes, with colourful patterns and elaborate headdresses that define the wearer’s age and marital status.  

Akhas reside in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand and are highly superstitious. They are known for holding strong beliefs about the spirits in the world. To take a deeper look at their lifestyles, you must visit their villages that are quite famous for their ‘spirit gates’, which supposedly restrict the border between the spirit world and the real world. There are several ‘meet and greet’ and photography tours available for tourists wishing to visit the Akha villages. The Akha believe that the gates are entirely sacred and humans should not touch them or it will disturb the spirits and bring bad luck upon the whole village. 

You can also take part in a live cooking demonstration in the Ban Apha village where you can see the making of traditional Akha meals and taste them. The most famous Akha festival is the swing festival. It takes place at the peak of the rainy season, which is the end of August or September. If you are travelling to North Thailand around that time, it is worth a visit.   

  • Lahu

The Lahu hill tribe got its name from a Burmese word meaning ‘hunter’, and this is due to their superior hunting skills. Originally from the Tibetian Plateau and now settled in northern Thailand, the Lahu hill tribe is disctinvely known for its various colored communities – Red, Yellow, Black, WHite and Lahu Shelah. Settled in the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces of Thailand , the most common group are the Black Lahu that make up for the majority of the Lahu population.

Lahu’s are known for their Christmas and Lunar New Year celebrations. Their most important festival is the ‘New Rice Festival’, which is celebrated as a new rice crop is harvested. And this is an occasion you must visit. Known for its distinct dresses, Lahu women wear black and red jackets with shirts whilst the men wear baggy green or blue pants. They have a reputation for being excellent hunters and believe in working together for survival. To take an insightful look at their culture, you can visit the Lahu hill tribes in the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces of Thailand. Experience their lives and the cultural practices of one of the most gender-equitable societies in the world.

  • Karen

Karen hill tribe is the largest hill tribe in Thailand, with a population soaring in millions. They originated in Tibet but moved to Myanmar and finally Thailand. Today, they can be found in the Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son provinces of Northern Thailand.

These are among the more sophisticated tribes of Thailand, with multiple sub-groups, each with its unique language, set of customs, dress and knowledge. Karen tribes are known for making handmade items that are popular amongst the tourists, such as scarves and bamboo cups. They are great silversmiths, and their exquisite creations are a huge export worldwide.. A warm, gentle and welcoming tribe, the best way to know more about them is through cultural immersion. Especially visiting the  long-neck Paduang community of the Karen hill tribe.Women of this hill tribe are known for wearing stacks of metal rings around their necks, which have been placed since birth and distort and elongate the appearance of their necks. They also traditionally wear sarongs and a colourful cloth headpiece.

And you can take up a tour to visit some of the authentic Karen villages, indulge in their daily activities and a night stay at the Karen Homestay to learn more about the ‘Karen way of life’.

  • Hmong/Miao 

They are known to be migrated from to Northern Thailand. The second-largest hill tribe in northern Thailand, right after ‘Karen’ hill tribe are the Hmong hill tribe. Originally from the mountains of Southwest China, today this tribe had made the hilly regions of Chiang Mai province their home.

They share several same beliefs and traditions as the Han Chinese. For example – a strong belief in worshipping the deceased. And have three sub-groups, Black Hmong, White Hmong, Stripped Hmong.

The members of this tribe are generally business-minded. As a result, they are the wealthiest tribe in Thailand. Their villages can be easily recognised by their ground-level wooden houses. This is because they originate from southern China, where temperatures are cooler, thus favouring ground level living.

Each sub-group has its own unique costume. Black Hmong women wear embroidered pleated skirts decorated with bands of red, pink, blue and white. White Hmong women wear white skirts for special occasions and black baggy trousers for everyday use. They are known for their colourful arts and crafts, including cross-stitch work, weaving and embroidery that travellers love shopping and taking back home as souvenirs. attracts a lot of tourists. 

Don’t miss shopping and learning some bit of their cross-stitch work, weaving and embroidery.  

They enjoy singing and dancing and have well-maintained folk literature. Miao people are very welcoming, and if you are planning to visit Miao villages, the best time is during their celebrations of the famous Lusheng Festival (start of March) and the Sister’s Meal Festival during April.

  • Mien/Yao

The Mein hill tribe, also known as the Yao tribe, generally are considered as the ‘aristocrats of the Thailand hill tribes.Originated from central China and widely scattered throughout the north,  they have four major sub-groups – Phan (Bienh), Bunu, Cha Sun, Ping Ti. And they thrive with their families in Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok and Kamphaeng Phet provinces of Thailand.

You can visit Yao villages on a mountain top in Chiang Rai province to experience Yao hospitality with a splendid night view of the Chiang Rai province. Mien women are draped in long black jackets with bright scarlet lapels and heavily embroidered, loose trousers and turbans.

What makes them different from other hill tribes is that they are the only hill tribe to have a written language and proper religion. The best time to visit Yao villages is between January and February during their New Year celebrations. You can take part in different tours featuring different Yao communities. During these tours, you can learn to make a Yao collar specific to their ethnic group.

  • Lisu

The Lisu hill tribe has originated from Eastern Tibet, and today the traces of the Lisu hill tribe can be found in Myanmar, India and northern Thailand. Living in the Chiang Mai province of Thailand, they make up 4.5% of the total hill tribe population in Thailand.  

There are two subgroups of Lisu – The Flowery Lisu (Hua Lisu) and The Black Lisu (He Lisu)

The Lisu live within bamboo houses, generally with their extended families. In every Lisu village, there is a ‘village guardian spirit shrine’ located above the village, in a roofed pavilion which women are forbidden to enter but is open for tourists. It is intriguing to see the culture and sights  in the Lisu village.

The Lisu tribe is also known for its colourful traditional dresses. The women wear a blue or green knee-length tunic, with a wide black belt and blue or green trousers, while men wear green, pink or yellow baggy trousers and a blue jacket. There are several textile and photography tours organised to the Lisu villages for people looking for an insightful look at the Lisu culture. 

  • Palaung

The Palaung is the youngest hill tribe to have settled in northern Thailand. And have originated from Tibet coming from places like Myanmar, Burma and China to finally settle down in Northern Thailand. Today, they can be found in Chiang Dao district and the mountain areas of Northern Thailand. 

Most of the people in the Palaung tribe practise Buddhism and have three main sub-groups, Palé, Shwe, and Rumai. As a result, many Buddhist temples can be found in their localities. Palaung hill tribe is highly skilled at creative jobs like weaving, dyeing cotton to create alluring clothes, scarves and bags. Tourism is a major source of income for the Palaung hill tribe. Trekking and a ‘Stay-cation’ at the local homestays are some popular activities in the Palaung villages.

The traditional female dress is very distinctive. It includes a bright red skirt to be worn like a sarong. They also wear silver hoops around their waist, which is believed to be some form of protection. You can take part in photography and textile tours to know more about their culture and traditional dresses. 

The most famous Palaung village in northern Thailand is Ban Khop Dong in Doi Angkhang.

The hill tribes are supported constantly by the royal Thai government to help the hill tribes eliminate problems like hunger and poverty and improve their quality of life. As a result,  ‘Royal Project Foundation’ was launched in 1969.

It is an initiative of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand to solve the problems of deforestation and poverty.It was the world’s first project to replace drug-crops with legal crops and is one of the most successful projects of this type. Some popular royal projects that you must visit are, The Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang (Fang District, Chiang Mai), The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon (Chom Thong), Nong Hoi Royal Project Development Center (Chiang Mai). For more information about the royal projects visit here!

You can support the hill tribes by buying handicrafts directly from them, instead of going to gift shops for buying souvenirs and memorabilia. 

To take a closer look at the cultural and ethnic aspects of the hill tribes, you must visit northern Thailand on your next vacation. Cook and enjoy the traditional hill tribe meals together with your family and friends and experience a day in the life of a hill tribe family. This is probably the best and most authentic way to experience the hill tribes of Thailand.