There are many different hilltribes in Thailand. Some have been living here for hundreds of years, while others migrated from southern China in the past 50 years. Hilltribes establish their communities in the mountainous area of the north and the west.
Most hilltribes live their lives close to nature. They live mainly on farming while some recently turn to tourism. Each group of hilltribes has its own unique tradition, folk culture, and clothing.
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- Akha (I-ko)
The Akha call themselves A-Kha whereas the Thai people refer to them as Ko or I-ko. They are historically linked with the ancient Lolo tribes that inhabit Southh Yunnan.
I-ko build a village gateway or “Pratu-Phi” (“gateway of spirits”) to protect the village. This is styled with a symbolic sword and narrow, believed to ward off evil spirits and ghosts. I-ko still believe in the spirits. Their major festivals are the swing ceremony and Luna New Year celebrations.
Today, Akha are found in six provinces : Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Tak, Kamphang Phet, Lampang and Phrae.
- Hmong (Meo)
The Hmong prefer to locate their villages at high altitudes (1,000-1,200 m.). They are pioneer of primary-shifting cultivators. They are also expert silversmiths and embroidery. Their rituals are related to birth, marriage, death, funerals and mourning.
The Meo settlement is concentrated in thirteen provinces : Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Phrae Tak,Lampang, Phayao,Phetchabun, Kamphaeng Phet, Mae Hong Son,Sukhothai, Pitsanulok and Loei.
- Mien (Yao)
The Mien people came from Yunnan and Kwang-si to settle along mountain sides, growing corn and other crops.
Perhaps more than any other tribes, the Yao have adopted many characteristics of Chinese culture. They use Chinese characters to record traditional songs, migratory histories, legends, and the names of ancestors.
The major concentration of Yao residents are found in Chiang Rai, Phayao and Nan Province.
The Karen, or Yang as they are called by the Northern Thai, or Kariang as they are known to Thais in other parts of the country, are the largest highland group in Thailand.
Karen communities are located mainly in the mountainous areas of the western provinces along the Thai-Burmese border (Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak, Kanchanaburi and Phrachuap Khiri Khan)
- Lahu (Musur)
The Lahu belong to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. It is believed that they originated in the Tibetan plateau and over the centuries migrated to China, Burma, Laos and Thailand.
Lahu are expert hunters and planters. They also worship spirits. They celebrate New Year and the new rice season.
Lahu are found in five provinces. Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Tak and Kamphaeng Phet.
The Lawa are found only in Thailand. They are believed to be the first settlers in North Thailand. They are linguistically closely related to the Mon-Khmer and have largely been absorbed into Thai society.
Most Lawa were found to be living on the Bo Luang plateau southwest of Chiang Mai and in the mountainous area of Umpai, southeast of Mae Hong Son.
- Lisu (Lisor)
The Lisu are believed to have originated in southern China and first appeared in Chiang Rai Province about 80 years ago.
Lisu have adopted much which is Chinese. For example, they celebrate their New Year on the same day as the Chinese.
Today Lisu are found living scattered throughout the nine northern provinces : Chiang Mai, Chaiang Rai, Phayao, Mae Hong Son, Tak, Lampang, Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet and Phetchabun.
- Chin Ho
These former members of the Chinese 93rd Infantry came to take refuge in the northern areas starting in 1961. Their traditions are like those of the Yunnan Chinese.
Their biggest villages are on Doi Mae Salong, Doi Wawi and Doi Pha Tang in Chiang Rai.