Thai Hill Tribes and Indigenous Cultures

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Indigenous people and cultures are essential to any region for they are the bearer of history, preserving it as a valued treasure and keeping the traditions alive. Thailand too is one such region where tourists can find not just enchanting landscapes and architectural marvels but unique people belonging to various tribes and indigenous groups. The home to more than 70 ethnic groups, Thailand is a prime example of how cultural cohesion gives the country a welcoming vibe. While all these groups add colors to the country, the hill tribes are the most famous for their unique way of living and colorful attire.

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Hill tribes of Thailand reside in the highland areas of Thailand, mainly in the northern and western regions of the country. These groups were migrants who primarily came from China, Myanmar, and Laos but now they make the minority of the country, serving the country as agriculturists. [1] 

Major Ethnic Groups Among Thai Hill Tribes

Major Ethnic Groups Among Thai Hill Tribes

The country has around 70 different ethnic tribes but the 7 most famous hill tribes who had attracted people for their vibrant traditions, beautiful intricately designed jewelry and clothing, and their unusual cultural practices are Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Palaong, and Yao. [2] 

hill tribe women collecting tea leaves in the fields

Akha

The happy women of the Akha tribe

The people of the Akha tribe live in the province of Chiang Rai. This tribe is famous for its staunch belief in spirits.  Their villages have the doors by the name of spirit gates and they strongly believe that the gate is the only way through which the world is separated from the world of the spirits. Their reverence for these spirit gates can be understood from the fact that they do not allow anyone to touch them, believing that touching it will be perturbing to the spirits and thus, can bring bad omen to the entire village

Lisu

Children of the Lisu tribe

Lisu people can be differentiated because of their bamboo homes and the bright-colored tunics that their women adorn. They are subdivided into Flowery Lisu and Black Lisu groups. Lisu villages are unique, in that, every village has its own guardian spirit shrine which is usually built at the top side of the village. Though women are prohibited from going there though tourists often go there. Lisu tribe people live in the province of Chiang Mai.

Yao

The men and women of the Yao tribe

The aristocrats of the hill tribes, Yao are very sophisticated and respected. They are unique as they are the only tribe to have a religion and a language specifically of their own. Their tribes are further divided into 4 groups called Phan, Cha Sun, Ping Ti, and Bunu and they reside in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, and Kamphaeng Phet.

Palaung

Women of the Palaung tribe in their traditional attires

These hill tribe people can be found in the district of Chiang Dao and the mountainous region of northern Thailand. Being Buddhists, the people of the Palaung tribe can be easily differentiated because of the temples in their villages. The fashion of their women is also different from those of other hill tribes with a deep red skirt that is usually worn as a petticoat. They also wear beautiful hoops made of silver around their waist as a talisman.

Lahu

The woman of the Lahu tribe selling their craft

Known for their hunting skills, Lahu tribes are unique due to their variety of colored communities, mainly red, white, black, lahu Shelah, and yellow. What makes them different from the rest of the tribes is the equality between both genders and how both, men and women, contribute to having a strong society and community. They live in the provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.

Karen

The “giraffe woman” of the Karen Hill tribe

Karen is one of the most organized and sophisticated tribes in the country who dwell in the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Mae Hong Son. They are known for their meticulous craft of handmade items which include but are not limited to silver jewelry, bamboo cups, and scarves. What makes them stand out from the crowd is their women with many brass rings around their necks, making their necks longer than the usual necks.

Miao/Hmong

The Miao tribe women selling vegetables in the open market

As the people from this tribe originated from China, like Han Chinese, they also worship the dead people. They are further divided into three groups called White, Stripped, and Black Hmong with each group having different kinds of dresses to represent them. Their villages, which are located in the province of Chiang Mai, can be distinguished because of their unique wooden homes on the ground level.

Cultural Practices and Traditions

A visit to Thailand cannot be completed without experiencing the cultural diversity of these ethnic hill tribes. Not only are they different from each other in their cultural practices, but their religions, languages, festivals, and attires are also different from each other. The table below represents the variety of languages, dresses, and festivals unique to each hill tribe.

Hill Tribe

Population

Craft

Language

Clothing

Akha

400,000

Seed, coins and shell craft, applique work, silver ornamentation, bright colored embroidery. [3]

Akha

  • Men: White vest, loose trousers, blue jacket

  • Women: Short skirt, Decorated headdress, leggings, jacket, embroidered sash.

Lisu

55,000

embroidery with stripes of clothes instead of thread.

Tibeto-Burman

  • Men: Blue/Green Pants, Black Jacket, black leggings.

  • Women: Green/Blue tunic with splits on both sides of the waist. The tunic is knee length from the front but mid-calf from the back.

Yao

45,000

Silver rings, jewelry, and cross stitch

Mienic

  • Yao men wear a tunic jacket and loose trousers and black embroidered caps

  • Women: long black jackets with scarlet woolen lapels. They also wear loose black pants embroidered with exquisite designs and a matching black turban.

Palaung

4,500-5,000

Weaving, cotton dyeing, bag stitching

Palé, Rumai, and Shwe

  • Men: Chinese-style baggy pants, longyi, sarong.

  • Women: Tube skirts called glahng, stitched with white thread. The skirt is decorated with primary-colored cloth strips.

Lahu

620,000

Weaving on readle and strap loom

Tibeto-Burman

  • Men: Green and Blue baggy pants

  • Women: Black clothes with heavy vibrant embroidery on sleeves, lapels, and pockets.

Karen

1,000,000

Embroidery with colored(tie and dye)

S'gaw Karen, Western Pwo Karen, and Eastern Pwo Karen

  • Men: long shirts, pants, sarongs

  • Women: brass rings around the neck, sarongs, blouses embroidered with seeds, and colorful motifs.

Miao

174,000

Silver Jewelry

Hmongic/Miao languages

  • Men: Navy Blue plain dresses

  • Women; Colorful dress with a highly decorated headdress made of silver. Lots of silver jewelry, mainly rings, bracelets, hairpins, and chains.

The Vibrant Festivals of Hill Tribes

The Swing festival of the Akha tribe

Similar to their attires, the celebrations of hill tribes are full of colors and bling. Most festivals either celebrate their religious ceremonies or the harvest season. From Akha Swing Festival where women swing from height during the rainy season, singing and praying for healthy produce to Lisu Festival which is celebrated at the same time China celebrates its New Year, the festivities give a glimpse of the vibrant traditions of the hill tribe people of Thailand. Other popular festivals of ethnic groups are  Hmong  New Year which is celebrated during harvest season in November, Lusheng Festival celebrated in March and Sister’s Meal Festival celebrated in April each year.

Agronomics and Hill Tribes

The tea leaves cultivated by the hill tribe people

Apart from lives full of colors, the ethnic hill tribesmen and women are skilled farmers with each group focused on cultivating a particular crop. The Akha tribes usually grow, rice, tea, vegetables, coffee, and corn whereas Lisu tribes are more focused on rice and corn plantation along with keeping livestock.[4] Other tribes like Lahu are skilled hunters and Palaung tribesmen normally grow beans and corn. The hard work of these tribesmen and women makes Thailand the third-largest exporter of rice in the world. [5] 

The Religious Practices of Hill Tribes

The Religious Practices of Hill Tribes

Though most of the hill tribes practice animism, their rituals and forms of worship differ from one tribe to tribe. The table below gives an overview of the religious practices and rituals of the hill tribes.

The Lahu tribe village

Tribe

Religion/Rituals

Akha

In the Zahv religion, the Akha tribe people practice animism and worships of the dead

Lisu

The Lisu tribesmen/women are mostly Christians

Lahu

Lahu people believe in Buddhism but some of them are polytheists

Karen

The Karen people have five different kinds of religions but each has its roots in animism and Buddhism. These five beliefs are Buddhism, Christianity, Animism, Lekhai (it is Buddhism and the belief in the golden book), and Tekakhon (a prophet cult)

Miao

They worship their deceased ancestors and many spirits.

Yao

Yao are mostly believers in spirits (animism) or are Buddhists.

Palaung

Though most are animists, some are also Christians. [6]

Conclusion

If Thailand is your next vacation, a visit to these hill tribes is a must for full cultural immersion. These people have a unique way to live life, one which is inspiring, at times overwhelming but certainly not boring. Their intricately designed jewelry and beautiful bold-colored clothes speak volumes of their high spirits and full-of-life traditions, something that one should not miss if one wants to have the best cultural experience.

Reference

[1] What should you know about major hill tribes in Thailand. (2023, February 20). Tourism Thailand. https://tourismthailand.in/what-should-you-know-about-major-hill-tribes-in-thailand/

[2] Cultural insights: Hill tribes of Thailand. (2021, November 8). Discova. https://www.discova.com/blog/cultural-insights-hill-tribes-of-thailand/

[3] Thailand: Thaitribal crafts — Global village Nanaimo. (n.d.). Global Village Nanaimo. https://www.globalvillagenanaimo.com/thailand-thaitribal-crafts

[4] Union of hill Tribe villages. (n.d.). Union of Hill Tribe Villages. https://www.longneckkaren.com/akha.php

[5] Thai January rice export volume up 75.2% Y/Y. (2023, February 27). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/thai-january-rice-export-volume-up-752-yy-ministry-2023-02-27/

[6] North Thailand’s ethnic minorities: The Palaung. (n.d.). Travelfish. https://www.travelfish.org/beginners_detail/thailand/79

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