From the Blog

January 1, 2016

The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand

The term ‘Hill Tribe’ (Chao Khao) first appeared in Thai official documentation in the 1960’s, recent history has given a new official term that of the “Highland Thais”.


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand


There are broadly speaking seven major hill tribes within Thailand they are the AkhaLahuKarenHmong/Miao/MongMian (Mien or Yao), Lisu, and PadaungWhile the Padaung are in fact a sub group of the Red Karen, on a simple numerical bases they should be termed a “Major Hill Tribe”, and so I have included them in my list as they are fast becoming the most recognized of all the Hill Tribes.

In fact there are ten officially recognized Hill Tribes in Northern and Northeast Thailand. The other four are Lua (10,000), Thai Lu (100,000), T’in (40,000) and Mlabri (300). (Figures show; reported number of people, within each tribe)

The ten officially recognized groups are collectively called chao khao (meaning hill/mountain people or highlanders). Prior to this they were officially titled chao pa (forest people), but pa in Thai – means “forest” and has the connotation of “wild,” and so was seen as derogatory.

According to the Department of Social Development and Welfare (2002), the total of the officially recognized “hill-tribe” population is 925,825. (The exact number of hill tribe members is not known and sometimes estimates of their numbers varies considerably).


Each has its own distinct language, customs, culture and spiritual beliefs.

Within these seven tribes there are many sub-groups and clans that further divide the tribes. To help each clan, distinguish other clans, many of the sub groups are named after the colour of their traditional dress i.e. the Lahu have 6 sub groups of which 4 are named the Black, White, Yellow and Red. While the Lisu are divided into two sub-groups: the striped Lisu and the black Lisu.

Almost all the present day Hill Tribes inhabit the high mountainous areas of the Northern and Western Provinces of the Kingdom of Thailand.


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand 1


Most of the Hill tribes listed here have been in Thailand for a relative short time having only migrated into the region during the past 100 years or so, with the most recent the Padaung only arriving in the last few decades. Far older tribes still inhabit the mountains in Northern Thailand, but their numbers are relatively small, for example the Lawa or T’in, who are considered to be the first settlers to Thailand, sometime in the 5th century BC number only 17 -40,000 people.

Almost all of the Hill Tribes were once semi-nomadic people using swidden  farming methods, to produce dry rice and maize. (Slash and burn techniques – moving onto new ground on a seven year cycle).

Today the majority still raise live stock and farm the lands, but in a more sustainable manner. In times past they were once able to harvest hardwood timber, while others were renown as elephant masters and specialist hunters.

Plus many had brought from their former homes in both China and Burma the art of Poppy farming as a cash crop.  Northern Thailand with its neighboring countries became known as the Infamous ‘Golden Triangle’


National Committee for Hill Tribes


It was not until the 1950’s when a dramatic increase in their numbers (many were escaping persecution from bordering countries), extreme poverty, statelessness and the threat of insurgency forced the Thai government with financial foreign aid, to form a National Committee for Hill Tribes. It had the expressed aim of eradicating both the financial need to grow Opium and to stamp out the drug barons who mercilessly enforced their will on the farmers.

Alternative cash crops were successfully substituted, including Tea, coffee, flowers and vegetables. This is still known as a Royal Project, initiated by the late King Rama IX.  Opium was not wiped out as a wide spread economical crop until as late as the 1990’s. See our post from Opium to Tea.

Later in 1968 the Thai Government insisted that the Hill Tribes must stop their traditional form of subsistence living and in return offered them Thai IDs and land rights. They are now what we may term ‘settled’ but their lifestyle is still influenced by their culture. Not all of the Hill Tribes People are Thai citizens. Some hold “white cards” which allow them to remain in Thailand but give them the status of second-class citizens.

Their efforts to settle into their new homes has meant that it is now not uncommon to see intensive irrigated rice cultivation on permanent terraced fields laboriously constructed on the flanks of mountains.
The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand 2

Beliefs & Religion

The beliefs and religion of the majority of the Hill Tribes are based on Animism, domestic Ancestral Worship and shamanism, along with an ever increasing belief in Buddhism and Christianity.


Animists believe the world is inhabited by spirits that are usually (but not always) invisible to humans. These spirits may live in trees, in rivers, in mountains, in normal houses, or houses built specifically for them. Some of these spirits are dangerous, and protective measure must be taken against them. For example, The Karen believe spirits cannot climb an odd number of rungs on a ladder so ladders to Karen houses always have an odd number of rungs.

Ancestral Worship

Veneration of the dead is based on the belief that the deceased, often family members have a continued existence and/or possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. While this may seem strange for many it is not that uncommon, for example the Catholic Church, venerate saints as intercessors with God.


Is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness, in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world, then to channel these transcendental energies into this world. A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits. They typically enter into a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing. (Wikipedia)
As with most of the Hill Tribes of Thailand, memory and recitation, (through both stories and songs) has been the sole form for preserving and passing on, tales of their history and culture down through the generations. (The Hmong also hand down tales embodied into their garments). Only the Mian/Yao people have a pre-modern written language which due to their 2,000 year history in southern China is based on the Chinese language.


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand 3


While most of the hill tribes are still using their own languages many teenagers have started to adopt Thai, not only because of the influence of the Thai educational system but because of tribal discrimination in lowland-Thai society, Others go further and change their names to Thai again in the hope that they will be treated equally with their Thai counterparts.


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand 4


While most people’s view of the hill tribes is one of a content and an idyllic way of life, one should never forget that they live in an unforgiving mountainous environment. Where they are at the mercy of the nature, where the climate can often destroys crops and villages, and where they are often cut off from the outside world and one another during the rainy season. Despite these hardships they have all managed in different degrees to maintain their individual rich cultures and sense of community.


The Seven Major Hill Tribes of Thailand 5





More on the Hill Tribes of Thailand

The Hmong

The Karen

The Lisu

The Akha

The Lahu

The Padaung

The Mian


For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people 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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