The What’s Up Guide to the People of Chiang Mai and the Language They Speak

The people of Chiang Mai today are the descendants of ethnic Tais from the Xishuangbanna area of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The diversity of the native population has expanded over the past couple of centuries. There are a significant number of ethnic Chinese who live in the Chinatown zone around Warorot Market on the west bank of the Ping River.

There are also hill tribes who hail from villages in the mountainous regions surrounding Chiang Mai city. These tribes migrated from Yunnan, Myanmar and Tibet and brought their own distinctive customs, language and styles of dress with them. A stopover at a hill tribe village is an essential ingredient on trekking trips from Chiang Mai and an opportunity not to be passed over lightly.

Among the main groups of hill tribes are the Karen, the Hmong, the Lisu and the Akha. Each of the main groups can be divided into sub-groups. The Long Necked Paduang is a sub-grouping of the Red Karenni from Myanmar. Although their villages are mostly in adjoining Mae Hong Son Province, Long Necked Paduang and other hill tribe members are often spotted in Chiang Mai or other towns and villages in the province. 

The lingua franca of Chiang Mai is a dialect known as kham muang, but most people speak and understand the Thai language spoken in Bangkok and the central regions of Thailand. Central Thai and kham muang share some words and sound similar, but do have a lot of differences. For example market is kad in kham muang and talat in Thai whereas water is naam in both languages.

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Written kham muang derives from the old Lanna alphabet and again is different from the Thai alphabet. Written kham muang is not really used nowadays and only serious academics are able to read it. The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants plus 15 additional symbols for vowels. Fortunately a lot of modern signage has both Thai and English script and this helps alleviate culture shock.