Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand


Numbering approximately 600,000. the hill tribes consist of six main groups, most of who have migrated into the area in the past 150 years, originating in Yunnan, Northern Burma and even Tibet. Primitive, poor and often marginalized by Thais, the hill tribes prefer to live in the uplands undisturbed and are noted for their distinctive costumes. Tourism Dollar, and efforts by His Majesty’ Royal Project to provide them with agricultural cooperatives, has brought prosperity and out side influence to some villages.

Karen: Among the more sophisticated of the tribes, the Karen mostly occupy a strip along the Salween River in Mae Hong Son province, with many more in the Karenni state inside Burma. They farm lowlands, practice crop rotation and are noted for basket weaving. Distinguished by their red of white cotton tunics.


Hmong: The second largest group, most commonly found in Chiang Mai province, the Hmong benefit from integration through cooperatives. Fiercely independent, they helped fight communists in Laos on behalf of the CIA in the 70s. Distinguished by heavily embroidered costumes (women) and smart baggy trousers (men).


Akha: Perhaps the most down-trodden of the tribes, the Akha’s distinctive eyes hint at Tibetan origin. Mostly found in Chiang Rai province, Like the Karen, many are refugees from Burma. Noted for their oral ancestral history and Swing Festival. They can be found hawking at the night markets and are distinguished by their intricate headdress of coins, beads and shells.


Lisu: Considered the prettiest of the hilltribe women, the Lisu roam at the markets in Pai and Mae Hong Son. Originating from Tibet, they keep livestock and cultivate vegetables, living above 1000m. Their bright, multicolored hats and accessories are commonly sold at markets. Distinguished by bright purple and peach frocks with elaborate headgear.

Lahu: A small and impoverished hilltribe found along the Burmese border in the North, especially in Doi Angkhang. Known as Musor-“hunter” in Burmese – Lahu villages consist of bamboo huts with stilts on steep hillsides. Distinguished by black and red jackets (women) and bright green baggy pants (men).


Yao: Also known as the Mien, the Yao are the shyest of the tribes confined to villages in Chiang Rai and limited trekking routes. They have deep Chinese influences, with a written language based on Chinese. Fine silversmiths and embroiderers, the practice polygamy and are distinguished by re and black embroidered costumes and unique red fur boas’ around their necks.