From the Blog

December 24, 2015

Hill Tribes of Thailand – The Lisu

The Lisu of Northern Thailand and their unique culture


Often referred to as “Lisor,” they refer to themselves as “Lisu.” ……… “Li” comes from the word “eelee,” which means custom, tradition, or culture; “su” means “person.” The combined meaning can therefore be said to speak volumes of these people: ‘A group of people who share a deep pride in their customs, traditions, and culture’. 

This can be seen as their traditional dress which is not only alive with vibrant colours; it speaks of their desire to keep to their age old traditions. The Lisu are considered to use the greatest variety of colors of all the hill tribes and maintain their traditional dress on a daily basis leaving their very best for special occasions

Hill Tribes of Thailand


Their language falls into the Yi or Ngwi branch, of the large Sino-Tibetan family of languages. It is thought that originally, the Lisu were from the area near the head of the Salawan waters and the Mekong River, located in northern Tibet. They later traveled to the northwest portion of Yunnan province in the People’s Republic of China.

The Lisu first came to into Thailand around the year 1921. Lisu history is passed from one generation to the next in the form of songs as they have no written language of their own. Today, these songs are so long that they can take an entire night to sing.

Although most Lisu in Thailand especially younger children speak Thai there first Language is Lisu, many also still speak Yunnanese.


Hill Tribes of Thailand 1

Striped and Black Lisu

The Lisu are divided into two sub-groups: the striped Lisu and the black Lisu. The majority in Thailand are of the striped Lisu sub-group. With most of the black Lisu, spread out across China, Burma, Thailand and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In Thailand they can be found across nine different provinces: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Phayao, Tak, Kampaengphet, Phetchaboon, Sukhothai, and Lampang, with a total population in Thailand of approx 55,000.

Lisu clans are patrilineal – family membership derives from and is traced through his or her father’s lineage. The six main clans are roughly translated into English as: Bear, Buckwheat, Fish, Hemp, Honey and Wood.

Religion and Beliefs

shrine dedicated to the ancestor spirit known as AphahmowheeLike many other Hill Tribes of Thailand including the Akha and Lahu; the Lisu practice a religion that is part animistic, part ancestor worship, mixed within complex local systems of place-based religion.

The Lisu believe in a single creator, Wu Sa. Besides the creator there are many forms of spirit at work in their daily lives, from spirits of deceased ancestors to spirits of forests and other inanimate objects. The Lisu also probably pre-date the Roma in their belief in vampires and they have their own version of werewolf a ‘Were tiger’

The Lisu are one of the most spiritual of all of the hill tribes of Northern Thailand and every household in a village will have its own spirit house plus each village usually has a shrine dedicated to the ancestor spirit known as Aphahmowhee.

A Lisu village has two religious heads and two equally important community leaders:

Kwa-Too (Leader of the community): This person is elected to the position by the villagers, his role is to arbitrate in matters of dispute, assessing and fining, plus other forms of punishment to offending villagers

Cho-Mo-Cho-Dtee (Head elder): Normally the eldest living male in the village, who is respected by the younger members of the village, along with the Kwa-Too makes important village decisions.

Meu-Meu-Pa (Ceremonial leader): The holder of this position is chosen by way of ah-bpa-mo (a fortune-telling ceremony). Each village can have only one Meu-Meu-Pa. The ceremonial leader’s responsibilities are to act as a medium between the great Spirit and the villagers, and to both announce and conduct ceremonies to observe the various sacred days of the year.

Nee-Pa (Spirit doctor): This individual is elected and appointed, by the spirits of the ancient ancestors of the family dynasty and is responsible for maintaining the connection between the spirit world and the world of humans.



Hill Tribes of Thailand - The Lisu

Naming a Lisu Child (Known as Chajuaduer)

The Lisu people hold a name ceremony for newborns as they believe that newborns must be named within three days of their birth. If a family fails to name their child in this time, a spirit will name and claim the child as its own. The child’s life would then be in danger.

The Six Names of a Lisu child
Each Lisu individual is given multiple names. Unlike one’s nickname, these names must stay with the individual for his or her lifetime. Using a newborn Lisu female for example,

  1. The Lisu will choose her name during the HleeJeeMe Saelee ceremony (this translates to the “Name Surname” ceremony).
  2. The first name is determined by the child’s status in her family. If she is the first-born child, her first name would be “Amee”.
  3. If the child is adopted, her adoptive parents will name her after a wild animal.
  4. The child will then be named after either her strongest or weakest character trait.
  5. In addition, she will have a nickname determined by a noticeable character trait such as bravery. The Lisu word for bravery is “Awosuema” which literally means “to like to catch butterflies”.
  6. Finally, this newborn child will have a government name such as Kamolrat.


Hill Tribes of Thailand - The Lisu 1


The Lisu believe that even after death, the deceased still needs to work for food. In order to keep the departed from going hungry, they purchase land from the spirits of the forest, the hills, and the pathways that pass through the site.

These spirits are the real owners of this land. To do this, coin will be tossed in each of the four cardinal directions surrounding the burial site. Next, rice, corn and many other plant and vegetable seeds, will be sprinkled around the purchased land for the deceased to harvest food for themselves once in the spirit world

After sprinkling the seeds, silver coins will be tossed to the left side of the burial site. This is to purchase firewood from the local spirit for the deceased to use in cooking food. Next, silver coins will be tossed to the right side of the burial site to purchase water for the deceased to use for bathing and drinking.

The spirit doctor or “Nee Pa” will utter a prayer to the spirit of the deceased, to inform them that they have not yet risen up to be born again and in the meantime please live off the land here, which has been purchased for you. Do not go roaming around elsewhere for any reason.


The Lisu

The legend of Life

The Lisu have an ancient legend regarding the beginning of life, which goes something like this: Long ago there was a giant flood and from it, only two people survived a brother and his sister. Once the water had receded, the pair set out in search for other survivors, but to their dismay, they found no one. They realized that if they did not reproduce, then mankind would disappear off the face of the planet forever. Still, they couldn’t get over the fact they were brother and sister. Finally, they decided to consult the spirits.

Seeing a grinding stone and a mortar on top of a hill, the pair separated the two parts and rolled them down opposite sides of the hill. When the grinding stone reached the base of the hill it refused to stop rolling.

Instead, it persisted in rolling all the way around to the other side of the hill and reuniting with the mortar, ending up in exactly the same position it had been when on top of the hill. It did not matter what objects the pair used to test their fate, the results were identical each time. So they were convinced that the spirits had given their blessing to the union. They produced a son and a daughter who marked the new birth of the Lisu tribe.


Annual Events – Knife-Pole Festival of Lisu



The Lisu have but a few major events each year, the biggest is the Chinese New Year, with the second held 7th-8th day of 2nd month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the unique Lisu Knife-Pole Festival. While this festival is more commonly found in Yunnan Province, China; where it has been officially designated as the traditional festival for the Lisu people and named Dao Gan festival; part of the festivities are still played out here in Thailand.

When it comes to annual events the Lisu women don’t hold back when it comes to dressing up. A close look at the intricacy of the weaving, embroidery, and accessories gives one the sense that each Lisu woman sees herself as competing for first place in some beauty pageant. Not a patch of free space is left unadorned on their clothing with masses of silver ornaments hung across the chest, which dazzle the eye.

That said this annual event is about, the brave men and their barefoot ascent up a 20 metre high, Knife Ladder, the rungs of which are made of 36 razor sharp knives. Prior to attempting this no small feat the climbers stop at the bottom of the ladder to chant incantations and pay respect to the image of  Wang Ji, who, in the Ming dynasty, was a great hero to the Lisu.

Although ethnically Han himself, Wang Ji helped to train young Lisu men to be skilled fighters and helped the Lisu defend their lands from invaders. Wang Ji lived among the Lisu for many years and taught them new agricultural techniques as well as military skills. Once they have finished these ceremonies and prior to their ascent, they are offered locally brewed wine, along with the good wishes of those who choose to keep their feet safely on the ground.

Those that make it to the top, light firecrackers and throw small red flags to the crowds, showering them with good luck, in response the eagerly waiting on lookers, show their respect and gratitude by a rousing show of applause and screams.



But that’s not the whole story; there is another potential painful ritual which is played out, on the eve of the festival. A grand bonfire is set alight while both males and females in their best attire, dance around it. Later, some of the braver men, shoe less and topless leap through this Sea of Fire, imitating various motions of beasts. They will also daub their bodies with burning charcoal fire balls, which they roll and knead within their bare hands.

Both these events express the brave and fearless nature of the Lisu people. It is widely believed that through these acts all manner of disasters will be averted.




For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people of Thailand

The seven Hill Tribes of Thailand

A snapshot of the Phuan

The Haw in Today’s Thailand

The Yong and their Salak Yom Festival

Sea Gypsies

The Mon people

The Shan the forgotten Hill Tribe


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A big thanks to Virtual Hilltribe Museum for a good part of the information in this post. and the pictures from the brilliant Barbara at

Further reseach material from:


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