Cultural Information - Hill Tribes
Hill Tribe Groups of Thailand
and Surrounding Countries
Population: approx 300,000
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
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
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
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
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
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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