Thailand: Hill tribes

1) Akha

Background information

There are numerous Hill tribe peoples living nowadays in the north of Thailand. These peoples have migrated south in numerous waves from China over the past few hundred years to Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Some of the largest migrations did not take place until after the political upheavals triggered by the communist and socialist revolutions of China, Burma and Laos in the twentieth century.

In Thailand, most of the hill tribes live in the highland areas of the north, as well as along the mountainous western border with Burma, farming lands which are unsuited for the wet-rice paddy cultivation practised by the lowland-dwelling Thais. It is because they live in the mountains that these diverse minority peoples are known to the Thais as chao khao, or “people of the hills”. In fact, the term “hill tribe” is something of a misnomer as they are not “tribes” in an anthropological sense, and “hill peoples” or even “highlanders” would certainly be a more accurate translation.

2) Hmong

The six major “tribes” are the Akha (Ekaw), the Hmong (Meo), the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Lahu (Mussur); the Lisu (Lisaw) and the Yao (Mien). Each tribe is distinct, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress (the six dolls representing the Hill tribes in my collection are from the Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Yao). Totalling more than half a million people, Thailand’s hill tribe population constitutes just over 1% of the country’s total inhabitants.

3) Karen woman with neck rings

The hill tribe peoples normally live in mountainous forest regions, using slash and burn (swidden) agriculture, migrating to new areas when the soil is depleted. The National Committee for the Hill Tribes was formed in 1959 to “integrate the hill people into Thai society, while allowing them to preserve their culture”. The government began an extensive primary school programme in upland areas, however, the swidden techniques of shifting cultivation used by the hill tribes to grow food crops and opium poppies increasingly conflicted with the Thai’s national efforts to preserve watersheds against deforestation and to curb drug production. To address these problems, Royal projects and both Thai government and international aid development projects began promoting cash crops such as coffee, red kidney beans, potatoes and cabbages. The programmes have been very successful in bringing hill tribe villages into the cash economy and in reducing opium production. Economically, the hill tribe peoples have been endorsed through tourism, trekking and through the development and sale of tourist souvenirs and handmade silver jewellery (which is an important part of their dress).

4) Lahu

The success of these programmes has led to the loss of the tribes’ traditional way of life. They have increasingly had to abandon shifting cultivation in favour of rotational cropping and permanent field systems. In addition, they have often had to relocate from their preferred habitats in high areas near primary watersheds. Increased contact with the commercial culture of the lowlands and with Buddhist and Christian missionaries has brought many changes and many tribal people are abandoning their customs based on their beliefs in the spirit world and the annual agricultural cycles and are moving to the cities and towns, becoming part of “urban” Thailand.

5) Lisu

The women in the “tribes” are expert weavers and embroiderers, making the family’s clothing. The style and designs are very much specific to the individual Hill tribes. The men of the different tribes produce jewellery, weapons (especially crossbows), musical instruments, bird and animal traps, and other items made of silver, metal, wood, bamboo and rattan. It is especially the silver jewellery which is so important in the women’s dress and as a means of keeping wealth. Many of the hill tribes produce glazed fabric by treating the finished cloth with egg white, pig’s blood or proteins derived from cooking with water buffalo hide.

The clothes worn by the different “tribes” are very variable but there are some standard forms. Both men and women wear a tunic to cover the upper body. The tunic is based on a rectangular construction that efficiently uses cloth. The length varies from down to the waist or buttocks. How the tunic is closed depends on whether there has been any influence from the Han Chinese. The tunic is normally adorned with embroidery or appliqué at the neck, cuff and hem. The decorations on the sleeves may indicate marital status or community membership. Decorative panels are worn over the shoulders by the Hmong, whereas the Yao have a panel affixed to the front of the tunic.

Women may wear a skirt with or without leggings or trousers. However, when worn, the trousers have a wide leg which are cut above the ankle. There is usually a decorative band just above the hem. The Hmong and Yao commonly wear such trousers. Hmong skirts are varied with respect to use, decoration and meaning, though they are generally full and pleated. The Li commonly wear tubular skirts, whereas the Jingpo, Karen and Lahu traditionally wear a sarong-style skirt. The skirts are traditionally worn with an apron.

6) Yao

Men wear a tunic and wide-legged trousers cut above the ankle. Some tribes favour trousers characterised by a low-slung crotch and tapered legs.

Jackets of varying lengths are worn by both men and women (waist to just above the ankles). The style is very variable between the tribes and may have Han Chinese influences. Waistcoats are also worn by various tribes, too.

Head coverings are used a markers of identity and range from turbans and hats to very elaborate headdresses. They are made of woven textiles or horsehair and are decorated with embroidery, metal plaques, shells, beads or bones.

The men of the different tribes produce jewellery, weapons (especially crossbows), musical instruments, bird and animal traps, and other items made of silver, metal, wood, bamboo and rattan. It is especially the silver jewellery which is very important in the women’s dress and as a means of keeping wealth. The jewellery consists of various ornaments for the head (horns, hats, crowns or hairpins), chest and neck (rings, pendants or plaques), back (pendants or plaques), hands (rings and bracelets) and clothing (bells or buttons).


Source(s) of information

Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 1. ISBN 978-0313-37636-8;; (all accessed 25 June, 2012); (accessed and 23 September, 2012)


1) Akha –

2) Hmong –

3) Karen woman with neck rings –

4) Lahu –

5) Lisu women –

6) Yao –



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