Sustainable and respectful visit to hill tribe communities in Thailand
While the south of Thailand is known throughout the world for its idyllic tropical beaches and palm-fringed islands, the north of the country has revealed itself as an eco-adventure paradise. The rugged, jungle-clad mountains that stretch northeast to the border with Laos and northwest to the Burma frontier are home to small ethnic minorities, commonly referred to as hill tribes. Most arrived here from across Asia during the last 100 years and many fled persecution, making their home amongst the lush rain forests and along the wild rivers surrounding Chiang Mai.
For those looking to embark on an eco-adventure into northern Thailand and meet the ethnic communities that call it home, here is a starting guide for what to expect and how to make the experience beneficial and respectful for all involved.
Discover sustainable agriculture with the Karen hill tribe
Distinguished by their woven v-neck tunics and turbans, the Karen people are one of Thailand’s largest minority groups. They originated across the border in Myanmar, from where many fled regional conflict.
They are known for producing beautiful woven textiles and approach their agriculture in an environmentally sensitive manner, allowing visitors an insiders glimpse into sustainable rice cultivation and crop rotation. The Karen are modest people and avoid touching anybody’s head or pointing with their feet - a gesture considered particularly rude.
Their stilted wooden houses, nestled within beautiful stretches of jungle along the border with Myanmar to the west of Chiang Mai, make the perfect overnight stop on treks through the Doi Suthep–Pui National Park, famed for its waterfalls. There is abundant bird life in the surrounding forests and the trek to the peak of Doi Pui offers spectacular views from its summit.
|Distinguished by their woven v-neck tunics and turbans, the Karen people are one of Thailand’s largest minority groups. They originated across the border in Myanmar, from where many fled regional conflict.|
Visit the long-necked Padaung women
The Padaung, a sub-group of the Karen, are immediately distinguished by their long-necked women, adorned in brass rings. Following regional conflict in Myanmar during the ‘80s and ‘90s, many fled across the border to refugee camps where they became self-sufficient on the revenue of curious travellers.
The elongated neck has traditionally been a sign of beauty, with brass rings added over time to depress the collarbone. In traditional religion, Kan Khwan, the Padaung emerged following the union of a female dragon and a male angel fused with human elements, and they pay tribute to their god during the annual Kay Htein Bo festival, held at the end of March.
Today the Padaung live mostly in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, along the beautiful Pai River. Translating as ‘Land of the three mists’ it is a region of natural beauty, home to secluded caves and waterfalls, as well as fantastic trekking within the Thampla-Phasua Waterfall National Park.
|Following regional conflict in Myanmar during the ‘80s and ‘90s, many of Padaung hill tribes fled across the border to refugee camps where they became self-sufficient on the revenue of curious travellers.|
Experience a traditional Hmong wedding
The Hmong form the second-largest hill-tribe in Thailand and originated in Yunnan, China before spreading across South East Asia. They are noted for the tightly pleated skirts worn by women that exhibit their intricate embroidery skills.
While the Hmong traditionally practiced shifting cultivation that saw villages constantly on the move, they now permanently farm the slopes surrounding their villages with fruit, vegetables and flowers which are then sold at local markets. Their animist religious rites and cultural celebrations are particularly rich, with marriages marked by lively songs and the exchange of a dowry paid in silver.
The Hmong now inhabit isolated areas to the south east of Chiang Rai, as well as the lowland areas near Chiang Mai, not far from the magnificent Theravada Buddhist temple of Doi Suthep. Not only is this elaborate building a sacred site for Thais, but offers impressive views across the region.
|The Hmong form the second-largest hill-tribe in Thailand, originated from China, and now inhabit isolated areas to the south east of Chiang Rai, as well as the lowland areas near Chiang Mai.|
Get ‘hands-on’ farming with the Yao hill tribe
Linguistic relatives of the Hmong, the Yao people originated from Central China and moved into Thailand from Laos following persecution at the end of the Vietnam War. They are distinguished by their long black jackets, adorned with ‘pom-poms’ and silver, together with black or red headscarfs and are the smallest ethnic minority group in Thailand.
Traditionally the Yao practiced a form of Taoism based on medieval Chinese beliefs, and this still plays an important role in their traditions, despite many converting to Buddhism. Harvesting of individual family farms is a community affair and this ‘all-hands-on’ approach extends to visitors eager to participate in the day-to-day life of the Yao.
They live within an area known as the ‘Golden Triangle’, one of South-East Asia’s former opium-growing regions. The House of Opium just outside Chiang Rai offers an intriguing insight into the important role this substance played in the lives of people here for hundreds of years.
|Yao hill tribes are distinguished by their long black jackets, adorned with ‘pom-poms’ and silver, together with black or red headscarfs and are the smallest ethnic minority group in Thailand.|
Go hunting with a Lahu warrior tribe
Fierce hunter-warriors, the Lahu people originated in Yunnan and are now spread across South-East Asia. The Black Lahu make up around 80% of the 100,000 who now reside in Thailand and they are distinguished by the black and red jackets worn by the women.
The Lahu refer to themselves as ‘Children of Blessing’ and seek this out through long healthy lives blessed with abundant crop harvests and successful hunting. Animal sacrifices are used to appease their God of creation, G’ui sha, and other spirits that fit within their animist beliefs, while caves are often utilised as sacred sites.
Most of the Lahu are now concentrated around the Burmese border to the north of Chiang Rai. Eco-treks to their villages can include bamboo-rafting along the Mae Tang River and elephant-back riding through dense jungle, with the opportunity to join the Lahu on traditional hunts to witness their skills first-hand.
|Lahu, originated in Yunnan, refer to themselves as ‘Children of Blessing’ and seek this out through long healthy lives blessed with abundant crop harvests and successful hunting.|
Immerse yourself in the traditional beliefs of the Lisu hill tribe
Originating in eastern Tibet, the colourful Lisu occupy high altitude regions and make a living from livestock and vegetable cultivation. Noted across Asia for their physical beauty, the Lisu women adorn themselves in brightly coloured, handmade tunics and tasselled turbans.
Their traditional religion has a single creator, Wu Sa, existing alongside multiple forms of other spirits, including vampires! Shamans are charged with the responsibility of communicating with the spirit world and visiting the Lisu allows you to immerse yourself in these traditional rituals and offerings. The biggest festival of the year coincides with the Chinese New Year and features music, dance and plenty of traditional food dishes.
The Lisu live in villages to the north of Chiang Mai around the region of Soppong, known for its many caves and the beautiful Lang River Canyon. Elephant treks and cycling tours are the best way to explore this region of natural beauty and abundant bird life.
|Originating in eastern Tibet and noted across Asia for their physical beauty, the colourful Lisu hill tribes occupy high altitude regions and make a living from livestock and vegetable cultivation.|
Participate in the Akha’s swing festival
The Akha remain one of the most impoverished of Thailand’s hill tribes, originating in China’s Yunnan province, but have strongly maintained their rich traditions and ancestry. The women adorn themselves with coins, beads and shells, while elaborate headdresses featuring silver medallions make them instantly recognisable.
One of the most intriguing events in the Akha calendar is the annual swing festival, with the tribe believing they were brought down to earth on a swing. Their traditional religion, known as zahv, incorporates ancestor worship and animism with a strong connection to the natural world.
Akha villages include an elaborately carved wooden frame or ‘spirit gate’ that wards off evil intruders from the outside world, while their houses are also heavily adorned - the more carvings found on the roof, the stronger the house is protected. They are concentrated in a region north of Chiang Rai known for its tea plantations, waterfalls and hot springs - perfect for a soak after a long eco-trek.
|Originating in China’s Yunnan province, Akha women adorn themselves with coins, beads and shells, while elaborate headdresses featuring silver medallions make them instantly recognisable.|
How to make a visit sustainable and respectful
If you’re thinking about visiting Thailand’s northern hill tribes, it’s important you make sure the tour company you are planning to travel with is working alongside the community to create initiatives that are beneficial and sustainable. Do some research on the cultural beliefs and etiquette of the hill tribe before you go to make sure you don’t behave in a manner that is insulting or derogatory. More importantly, having background knowledge will enrich your experience considerably, enabling you to put what you experience in context with the community’s history and values. Most of the hill-tribe visits allow you to get hands-on and working alongside people is a great equaliser - you may discover that beneath the outward appearance you have more in common than you thought.
Importance of ongoing support for Thailand’s hill tribes to continue their traditions
While the hill tribe communities of northern Thailand have rich cultures, belief systems and customs, they are being threatened as the modern world encroaches and many young people are falling victim to the vices presented by the outside world. Some have been lured into crime, drugs, alcohol and even prostitution as they leave their villages in search of money and a better life, making the future of these ethnic groups uncertain. In addition to providing financial support to these communities, tourism initiatives are helping to increase the awareness of these vibrant traditions and encouraging the youth to keep them alive well into the future.