Hilltribes of Northern Thailand
This document still under construction...
In the mountains of Northern Thailand there are several major divisions of
mountain tribes. Each major tribe division has a very unique culture,
religion, language, dress, etc. The major groups are: Kariang, Akha,
Lisu, Hmong and Yao. Other groups include yellow tree spirit people
which have dwindling numbers around 150 left. Among the non-Thais
in Northern Thailand are also the descendants of the KMT soldiers
Loi Mi Akha
The Akha hilltribes are most prevalent in the Mountains of Myanmar (Burma).
However several groups have migrated to the most Northern areas of Thailand.
Especially between Mai Salong, Chang Rai area. They speak a language that is
in the Tibeto-Burman family. Their religion is sort of an animist-ancesteral
religion. They are easily identifiable by their silver headdress which the
women always wear, even when they are sleeping. Their clothing is unique
which is typically black with red highlights. They usually have a
multicolored stitched pattern that span horizontally consisting of triangles
diamonds or squares.
There are three main akha groups. They can be distinguished by the
women's head dress and other things...
- U Lo - headdress is almost conical. They have been in Thailand for
several generations. They have begun to assimilate with Thai culture. Some
no longer where the traditional Akha clothes but western/thai instead.
There are about 25 clans in Thailand. They are common throughout the Northern
most area of Thailand especially around the Chang Rai area.
- Loi Mi - their headdress are rounded with a flat backing in the rear. Loi Mi have recently migrated from Burma. The Loi Mi that I met still retained a
very distinct culture from the Thais. The Loi Mi village that I visited had
a school that was set up and funded by the Thai government. The Thai government
is trying to change their main cash crop production of poppies/opium. Opium
production and limited consumption is still legal by hill tribes in Northern
- Pa Mi - They have a rounded headdress without the flat back in the rear like the Loi Mi. This group is uncommon in Thailand. They speak a dialect
that is called 'Aini Akha' by the chinese. The Pa Mi are spread throughout
Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China.
I brought along a copy of Lonely Planets
Thai Hill Tribes phrasebook, and
another which I can't remember the name of but will have to look up. The
LP phrase book was next to useless when talking with the U Lo. Obviously
it was the wrong dialect because the words were not even close to what I
was read. However, the other one (???) was pretty close. I'll look it
up and update this paragraph later....
- I gotta hit the john - ee maw me ah
- Thank you - goo la hoo ma day
- Hello - ming ga la ba (actually this is burmese, but it would work)
Akha's are some of the fiercest bargainers in the area. If one doesn't
except an offer I found it often to be the case that the akha would
feignt being very upset and unwelcome. As soon as the bargaining was over,
no matter how it turned out, things returned to very friendly terms.
If one doesn't speak Akha, It's difficult bargaining with the Loi Mi,
as it's rare to find one that speaks any English. Also, some of the
Loi Mi I met didn't understand arabic numerals, so if you don't know
your Burmese numeral script or know how to speak numbers in Ahka or
Burmese, you may be in for a difficult bargain session.
I found myself showing Thai bills to indicate an offer. Also, much of the
merchandise they sell is hand made or are personal items that have a personal
value which may or may not be the market value. Bargaining at what one would
the market prices may often be below the minimum a person will part with.
As usual, If another is selling the same thing, you may want to shop
The Lisu women are easily distinguished by their bright clothes. They wear
solid colors (usually bright blue, red, or yellow), with multi-colored layered
trim. They are spread out throughout Northern Thailand, Eastern Myanmar and
China. In Northern Thailand I found some villages between Phrao and
Wiang Papao, and around Pai. Also, I met some Lisu in the market area of
The Padaung are considered a subgroup of the Kariang. However, they typically
do not understand the language of the three other major Kariang groups. The
Padaung are located in the mountains along the East side of Myanmar (Burma).
As of January '94 there were two refugee tribes that had migrated into
Northern Thailand. One of them is situated about 5km NW of Mai Hong Song
along the border. This tribe is accessible by dirt road. The other is
only by boat. They are most famous for their long necked women.
The woman wear brass rings which stretch their necks out because in their
culture they consider a long neck very beautiful. What actually happens
is their rib cage becomes compressed giving the illusion of a longer neck.
They never take off the rings. As a result their neck muscles atrophy
to the point were they can no longer hold their head up with out the rings.
Rumor has it that a husband will remove his wifes rings if he finds his wife
cheating on him. National Geographics ran an article on the Padaung a
while back. Sorry, I don't have the date or issue number.
The Hmong are famous for their needle work. I haven't scanned in any pictures
I found some Hmong culture related info:
The yao always wear dark navy blue clothes. The women always have a bright
red fluffy trim on the shirt that resembles a Hawaiian leigh. They are also
serious cross stitch people. Sometimes they can spend 2 years covering a pair
of baggy pants with cross stitch. When they are done, they usually sell for
around US$100.00. Hand labor is pretty cheap! Most of the yao I met were
pretty used to tourists. The hung out in touristy spots. Several of them
usually spoke English. A couple villages I ran had a row of tourist stalls
for selling touristy trinkets. Yao's are excellent capitalists.
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