The upper regions of Northern and Western Thailand are home to the nation’s renowned hill tribe villages and their colourful occupants. A wander round one of the villages gives tantalising insights into the time-honoured traditions and inimitable culture of the hill tribes. Tour operators offering sightseeing tours to Fang, Doi Mae Salong, the Golden Triangle, Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep, Pai and Mae Hong Son invariably include a stop at one of the hill tribe villages on their itineraries.
Hill tribes historically eked a living from the land and were nomadic because they tended to move on when they felt the land they were farming was losing its fertility. In modern times, moving is not such an easy proposition and hill tribes have had to stay where they are. As a result, their villages have taken on more permanent appearances.
There are seven major hill tribe groups in Thailand plus several more subgroups with similar beliefs, traditions and dress to their particular parent group. Most of the hill tribes are descendants of pioneers who drifted into Thai territory on paths from the Yunnan region of China, Tibet and what is now Myanmar. A brief outline of each of the hill tribes found in the mountains of Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand follows.
An archway known as the spirit gate marks the main entrance to an Akha village. This portal plus carvings affixed to houses in the settlements are designed to allow good spirits in and keep the bad ones out. The Akha still follow the traditions of their forebears and grow rice, vegetables and soybeans. The attire of the Akha females is amazing. Leggings, skirts and jackets are black but the latter two items are embroidered with dramatic designs. Their hats are adorned with silver coins, ornaments and woolly bobbles.
The Hmong are the second biggest Thai hill tribe and at the last count there were about 150,000 of them here. Hmong claim their ancestors came from the Yellow River region of China. The Hmong found in Thailand wear distinctive clothing. Hmong women don embroidered and pleated dresses while men wear pantaloon-style trousers with colourful hems. A visit to a Hmong village is an add-on for Doi Suthep Temple tours. Doi Pui Hmong Village is only 15 minutes by road from the temple.
The Karen, or Kariang as they are known in Thailand, are more than 300,000 strong and the biggest hill tribe in the country. Karen hill tribe villages tend to be in the foothills as the different groups have established more permanent rice-growing areas than their counterparts. Different Karen tribes adhere to different religions. Some still follow the Christianity instilled by missionaries while others subscribe to animism and Buddhism. Karen people wear V-necked tops which are usually brightly coloured and embroidered with various designs. Females wear cloth hats which are just as bright and cheerful.
The Lahu hail from Yunnan and Myanmar and were famed in days of yore for their hunting skills. The Lahu are also adept at creating curative herbal concoctions and the women for their weaving. The bulk of Thailand’s Lahu population is Black Lahu and they live in locations not far from the border with Myanmar. Black Lahu females wear unique black and red tunics plus headwear festooned with silver trinkets.
The Lisu encompasses almost 60 different sub-groups of ethnic migrants from Tibet and Myanmar. In Thailand, Flowery Lisu are predominant and their women are renowned for their vivid attire. The women wear long dresses over trousers which are gaily coloured. Many still wear tasselled hats to create an illusion of the exotic. They follow a fusion of Animist, Buddhist and Christian rituals and traditions.
Ethnic Mien hill tribe members are also called Yao and come from the south and southwest regions of China. Thai authorities estimate there are about 50,000 Mien in the mountains of Nan and Chiang Rai provinces. They practice a religion which is a fusion of Taoism and Animism and reside in large houses as an extended family group. Mien wear black pants, dresses and tunics and these are decorated with embroidered materials. The women tend to don red scarves and extravagant hats or turbans featuring silver, tassels and pompoms.
The Padaung (AKA Long-Necked Karen) are the best known of Thailand’s hill tribes. This is due to the fact the females in the group are the long-necked ones who appear on postcards and advertising literature. The Padaung in Thailand mostly live in villages in Mae Hong Son Province and emigrated from bordering Kayah State in Myanmar. They are believed to have originally migrated from Mongolia. Members of this hill tribe living in Thailand dislike this name and prefer to be called Kayan.
Padaung girls start wearing brass rings around their necks when they are about five years old. As she gets older, the length of the rings is increased and eventually gives the woman the appearance of having a long neck. Anthropologists say this is an illusion as the rings are heavy and push down on collarbones and squeeze rib cages. The reason the Padaung adopted the custom is ambiguous at best and today even the females do not really know why they wear the neck rings.
Kayan people have their own religion and this is called Kan Khwan. They also claim the original Padaung were a male angel and a female dragon. Tourists looking to gain insights into the culture and traditions of the long-necked Kayan are able to visit Huai Seau Tao near the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son. Joining a tour gives the chance of buying the handmade sarongs and clothing accessories the Padaung are famous for too.