Thailand: Hill tribes

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.

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 three dolls in my collection are from the Hmong, Lahu and Lisu). Totalling more than half a million people, Thailand’s hill tribe population constitutes just over 1% of the country’s total inhabitants.

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).

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.

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.


Source(s) of information;; (all accessed 25 June, 2012); (accessed and 23 September, 2012)


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