Hilltribes in the North
100 years ago, the Hilltribe peoples migrated
south from China into what are now Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The
six major tribes are the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo), the Yao
(Mien), the Akha (Ekaw), the Lisu (Lisaw), and the Lahu (Mussur). The main
profession of all these tribes is farming, and all of them tend to migrate
whenever they feel that the soil at their present location is becoming
Each tribe is district, with its own culture, religion,
language, art, and dress. With Thailand undergoing rapid modern development,
it is difficult yet to say whether these tribes will continue in there
traditional ways of life, or whether they will eventually be absorbed into
the surrounding, and ever more-encroaching, Thai society.
Akha (Ekaw) villages are distinguished
carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. The Akha live in
raised houses, within which one small room is set aside for paying respect
The focal point of community life is the open ground --
the "common", if you will -- where the tribe celebrates its major festivals,
especially that of the Giant Swing and where young men and women come to
meet (under the watchful eye of the elders). This tribe is easily recognized
by the black caps covered with silver coins, worn by the women.
The Hmong (Meo) live in houses that sit right on the
ground, not on stilts as do most on the other tribes. However, the main
floor of their houses is not at ground level, but rests upon a kind of
above-ground basement or root cellar that they use for food storage.
Moreover, their house-fronts slope outward and downward, an architectural
feature that is the trademark of their villages.
The Hmong , even more than the other tribes, practice a
strict male-female division of labor. One custom that especially illustrates
this is that of giving a newborn boy a gift of metal from which he will one
they forge a weapon, whereas newborn girls receive no special gift.
The Hmong are a diligent, patient, and independent
people, fond of wearing their silver ornaments during ceremonies and much
devoted to the sky spirit they believe has created both the world and their
own ancient way of life.
The Lisu (Lisaw) like to settle near the tops of
mountains, as close as possible to streams or waterfalls. Their houses never
have more than one door and are oriented to stand parallel to the face of
the mountain on which they live.
Each village has a spirit house, and each house has a
small shrine to spirits an ancestors. In addition, because the Lisu are the
"engineers" among the Hilltribes, most of their villages feature a large
bamboo pipe, a conduit, that carries to the village water from the nearest
The Lisu are a handsome people, perhaps the
best-looking of all the tribes, and they like to think of themselves as a
cut or two above their other Hilltribe neighbors. Consequently, they are
among the least bashful of these ethnic groups, and, although patient, like
to be a bit competitive as well.
Karen (Kariang, Yang)
The Karen (Kariang, Yang) like to settle in
foothills, and live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which live
their domestic animals:
pigs, chickens, and buffaloes. They, like all the
tribes, are skilled farmers who practice crop rotation, and they also hunt
for game, with spears and crossbows, and use tame elephants to help them
Karen women are skilled in sewing and dyeing, and dress
in white blouse-sarong combinations with colorful patterns or beads for
trim. They wear their long hair tied back in a bun and covered with white
The Karen are gentle, peaceful, and cooperative people,
who, like all the Hilltribes, reserve their highest veneration for their
ancestors and living elders.
Since "Lahu", the name of their tribe, means
"hunter", the Lahu (Mussur) obviously pride themselves on their skills in
hunting and trapping. They are also famous for their knowledge of herbal
The Lahu are an independent people, physically larger
than the members of the other tribes, but rather than their greater stature
leading to aggressiveness, they love entertainment and the easily life.
Lahu women wear several kinds of distinctive dress,
although the men clothe themselves pretty much uniformly. The women wear
colorful turbans and like to sport beautiful earrings, usually of silver.
This is another mountain-top tribe with their houses on
stilts, and a "basement-corral" for their many domestic animals: chickens,
pigs, ducks, and buffaloes.
The Yao (Mien) prefer to live among low hills near
dense forest. Their houses also sit on the ground, and feature a space
designed for a cooking fire in the center of their main room, as well as a
small shrine dedicated to their ancestors and to the guardian spirit they
believe to inhabit each individual house.
Their language, long ago derived from Chinese, is
written in Chinese Characters, and their paintings, mostly of religious
subjects, reflect certain very ancient Chinese artistic styles, although the
Yao paintings have a unique flavor of their own, and are coveted by many
Yao are the "businessmen" among the Hilltribes, and
they also excel in the making of metal farm implements such as axes and
plows. Because they've long had a written language --unlike several of the
other tribes, who had no written version of their language prior to the
coming into their midst of Christian missionaries -- they also know how to
make high quality paper.
HILLTRIBE VISITOR ETIQUETTE It is kind, but not
necessary, to give gifts to people you visit. Some suggestions or
alternatives to sweets and cigarettes are balloons and other inexpensive
toys, cosmetics, medical supplies antiseptic, mild painkillers such as
aspirin, food, fruit, clothing, sewing supplies and foreign coins.
Follow the advice of your guide, don't be afraid to ask
questions. Respect the fact that you are a guest visiting the homes and
villages of these people. By showing them that your foreigners are genuinely
interested in them, your friendliness, sincerity and goodwill are the most
precious gifts you can offer.
The higest mountain in the
This site was last updated:
25 January 2007