Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities, known as the hilltribes. These add an important element to tourism here and you may visit, or go trekking to, numerous villages where they are happy to receive you. Most of these people migrated from surrounding countries such as China and Myanmar and settled in the mountains of Northern Thailand. This process took place over a period of centuries.
Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the government to form a National Committee for Hilltribes.
The Thai government recognizes six groups of ‘hill tribes’ in Thailand: Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha and Lisu. ‘Hilltribes’ is the term we will use throughout this website although many of these tribal people live on the lowlands nowadays. We also added the Kachin and Palong (Palaung). These two tribes are more recent arrivals from Myanmar and they number not more than a couple of thousand people at the moment.
The Shan are a Thai speaking people and are strictly speaking not an ethnic minority. Their language and culture is very similar to those of the Thai people but we still thought that there are specific differences in their customs and traditions that deserve separate mentioning. Shan are also known as Tai Yai. Other minorities are Tai Ya and Tai Lue. They can’t be classified as tribes or ethnic minorities but they are different from Thai people in customs, language and traditional dress.
A very good source of information on the tribes of Northern Thailand is this website.
“Peoples of the Golden Triangle” from Paul and Elaine Lewis (London, 1984) is still one of the best books on the six main tribes in Northern Thailand. They have lived with the tribes of northern Thailand since 1968. The results of their experience and research have been gathered in this book, along with more than 700 mainly colour photographs. Here we see not merely the landscape in which these people live, but their ceremonies their clothing, their houses and villages and their impressive skills at jewelry, textiles and basketmaking.
“Songs of Memory, Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle” by Victoria Vorreiter (Chiang Mai, 2009) is another fantastic book. It is about the musical heritage of the various tribes in the Golden Triangle Area and has a wealth of great pictures. Highly recommended.