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Cultural Information - Hill Tribes


Thailand | Myanmar/Burma | Laos | Cambodia | Malaysia | Vietnam | Hill Tribes


Hill Tribe Groups of Thailand and Surrounding Countries


Population: approx 300,000

Origin: Myanmar

This is the largest of the minority groups and many of the Karen were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism or being Buddhist. Within the Karen, there are three main sub-groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo and Red Karen or Kayah.

The Karen wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colors and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes - practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest.





Population: approx 124,000

Origin: Yunnan

This is the second-largest hill tribe group and is sometimes referred to as Meo. They are largely animistic and best known for their intricate embroidery. Known to be fiercely independent and with nomadic tendencies, they sided with communist rebels in Thailand in the 1970s, while the Hmong of Laos sided with the US during the Vietnam and Laos wars - both seeking self-determination.

The Hmong are sub-divided into White Hmong and Green Hmong. The Green Hmong are the most numerous in Thailand and women wear heavily embroidered, very tightly pleated skirts. The men wear baggy black pants with various levels of bright embroidery along the cuffs and seams. The Hmong have settled in the province of Chiang Mai and villages can be visited near Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon. Their succession is patrilineal and polygamy is widely practiced.




Population: approx 73,000

Origin: Yunnan, Myanmar

Also known as Musor, the Lahu are concentrated near the Burmese border and have five sub-groupings: Red Lahu, Yellow Lahu, Black Lahu, White Lahu and Lahu Sheleh. The Black Lahu is the largest sub-grouping, making up close to 80 per cent of the Lahu population. The women wear very distinctive black and red jackets and skirts and the men wear baggy green or blue pants. They have a reputation as excellent hunters, and survive off vegetable cultivation, with some supplementing this meager income with opium production.







There are but a few Palong villages in Thailand, all of them in the northern part of Chiang Mai province along the border to Myanmar (Burma).

In general, the Palongs can be found in Burma's eastern Shan state. At present the population is about 60,000.

They belong to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family.

Their main livelihood is the cultivation of tanatep, a large leaf to wrap Burmese cigars.

Both men and women decorate their teeth with gold.

The Palongs are easily recognized by the striking custom of their women, red sarong like garments, mostly a blue jacket with red collar and broad silver waistbands.

Formerly animist, most Palongs have converted to Buddhism.


Population: approx 50,000

Origin: Tibet / Myanmar

The Akha are among the most down-trodden and often most impoverished of the hill tribes, resisting assimilation into mainstream Thai culture. They are, however, the most fascinating and colorful of the hill tribes and can easily be visited, particularly in Chiang Rai province where many reside. Many villages have been converted to Christianity, though some observers decry this as a dilution of their culture.

The Akha have a very unique and rich oral literature tradition, in which they can recite their ancestors back numerous generations. The Akha came to Thailand in the early 20th century, mainly due to their persecution in Burma. The women wear very plain indigo died shirts, which are in turn adorned with all kinds of eye-catching paraphernalia, such as coins, beads, shells, etc. The women are also very visible by their ornate headdress adorned with silver, and many can be seen at the Night Bazaar hawking their intricate silver jewelry. Every year the Akha have a unique swing festival. Opium is still used among this tribe.









Population: approx 40,000    

Origin: Central China

Also known as the Yao, they are distant linguistic relatives of the Hmong and originated from China. They may also be found in Vietnam and Laos and Thailand. Many of the older Mien can still write Chinese, and many display distinctive Chinese facial features. Being the smallest group, the Mien live in isolated villages, mostly in and around Chiang Rai and Nan.

Mien women are noted for their magnificent cross-stitch embroidery, which richly decorates the clothing of every member of the family. The costume of the women is very distinctive, with a long black jacket with lapels of bright scarlet wool. Loose trousers in intricate designs are worn and a similarly embroidered black turban. Mien silversmiths produce lovely silver jewelry of high quality.

The Mien have a written religion based on medieval Chinese Taoism, although in recent years there have been many converts to Christianity and Buddhism. They are very peaceful and friendly, and pride themselves on cleanliness and honor and they are called the "businessmen" among the hill tribes.


Population: approx 28,000

Origin: Tibet / Yunnan

The Lisu women are distinguished by their brightly colored tunics, worn over long pants; some of the older generation continue to wear tasseled turbans on their heads. Occupying villages above 1,000m, they keep livestock and cultivate corn and vegetables. Unlike other hill tribes, they don't usually live in stilted houses.

Villages of this colorful ethnic group are to be found in the mountains of China, Myanmar (Burma) and northern Thailand. There are approximately 21,000 Lisu living in Thailand's northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai. They originate in eastern Tibet. Their house are built on the ground, with dirt floors and bamboo walls around a central ridge. For many generations the main means of livelihood for many of the Lisu people has been the cultivation of the opium poppy. Some of these people have given up poppy growing, and are now seeking to supplement their income through the sale of skillfully produced crafts.

The Lisu make their clothing from gaily-colored cloth stitched into outfits trimmed with row upon row of varicolored strips of cloth. The women wear brightly colored costumes, consisting of a blue or green parti-colored knee length tunic with a wide black belt and blue or green pants. Sleeves shoulders and cuffs are heavily embroidered with narrow, horizontal bands of blue, red and yellow. The more affluent wear massive amounts of hand-crafted silver ornaments for festive occasions.

Lisu men produce crossbows, musical instruments, bird and animal traps, and other items made of wood, bamboo and rattan. A few Lisu people have been converted to Christianity by western missionaries.






The Padaung are a sub-group of Karen (Bwe Group) living in Kayah state of eastern Burma on the Thailand border. They number less than 40,000 people in total. The Padaung call themselves "Lae Kur" or "Kayan". They have their own language which belongs to the Kenmic group in the Tibeto-Burman language family.

The Karen themselves are not one homogeneous group but rather a loose confederation of heterogeneous and closely related tribes. Among the smallest of the Karen tribes in Thailand are the Karen Padaung.

In Thailand, only a few families of Padaung have settled temporarily as refugees in Muang District of Mae Hong Son Province, near Ban Tha Ton in Chiang Rai Province, and as of June 2005 a small group near Chiang Dao. Generally they live among other hill tribe groups, mostly Karen.

The Padaung escaped from the Kaya State in Burma to Thailand in the mid to late 1900's and are actually refugees of a political turmoil. They belong to the Karenni sub-group of the Karen People, which are still fighting for their independence in Burma.

The Karen-Padaung occupied central Burma before the Burmese arrived from the North and they, together with the ancient Mon, farmed the Irrawaddy and Salween Valleys and built civilizations based on their unique cultures.

The Padaung women famously wear brass rings around their necks. This distorts the growth of their collarbones and make them look as if they have long necks - which they don't. This row of brass rings do not actually stretch their necks but in fact squash the vertebrae and collar bones. A woman generally has about twenty or more rings around her neck. This neck ring adornment is started when the girls are 5 or 6 years old.

The rings on the arms and the legs are not quite as prominent as those on the neck simply because the neck rings are so pronounced. However, these rings are just as important. The rings on the arms are worn on the forearm from the wrist to the elbow. Those on the legs are worn from the ankles to the knees, and cloth coverings are kept over most of these rings, from the shins down to the ankles.

Most of Padaung are animists, but about 10 percent are Buddhists. Now, the number of Christians is increasing because of the Roman Catholic mission. The annual festival for the fertility and prosperity of the whole community is usually held at the beginning of the rainy season. Sacrifices are made to the spirits for good health and bountiful harvests. Rice is the Padaung main crop.




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