About Hill Tribes

This is a bit long, but I figured that if you are interested enough to look here then you'd probably appreciate something more than just a sentence about each tribe. I've used a few sources to put this together, they are all listed at the end.

Hill tribe is a term used in Thailand for all of the various ethnic groups who mostly inhabit the high mountainous Northern and Western regions of Thailand, including both sides of the border areas between Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma, as well as northern Vietnam. These areas also called the Golden Triangle, are known for their often mountainous terrain which is in some areas covered by thick forests, while in others it has been heavily affected by deforestation.

The hill dwelling peoples have traditionally been primarily subsistence farmers who use slash and burn agricultural techniques to farm their heavily forested communities. Traditionally, hill tribes were also a migratory people, leaving land as it became depleted of natural resources or when trouble arose.

There are six main Hill Tribes - the Karen, the Hmong, the Yao, the Lahu, the Akha and the Lisu. There are several smaller groups within these (for instance there are Flower Hmong, White Hmong and Blue (or Green) Hmong and other groups who consider themselves separate and different.

The Karen

The Bwa G'Naw, known to many as Karen, and to others as Kariang or Yang, are one of the largest hill tribes in Southeast Asia. The total population of Karen people is unknown, since they are spread throughout Burma, Laos and Thailand, and no reliable census has been conducted in Burma since the 1930s. Population estimates range from 7.5 million to 14 million people. (The more conservative estimate makes their population equivalent to that of Switzerland). The approximately 320,000 Karen in Thailand comprise half of the country's total hill tribe population.

While the Karen still practice slash and burn farming as other hill tribes do, they differ in that they live in permanent villages at lower elevations and have been aggressive in developing environmentally sustainable terraced rice fields. These factors have allowed the Karen to better integrate themselves into Thai society.The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 35% are Christian.[44][45] Lowland Pwo-speaking Karens tend to be more orthodox Buddhists, whereas highland Sgaw-speaking Karens tend to be heterodox Buddhists who profess strong animist beliefs.

An integral part of Karen culture is the art of weaving. This practice unites women of the community who continue to make clothing and shoulder bags by the traditional process of hand weaving sitting on the ground using a strap loom. The intricate weaving patterns are handed down from generation to generation. The quality of the weaving is such that it is hard to believe that it is done by hand. So outstanding is the quality of their weaving that the name "Karen" has almost become synonymous with "Weaver". This hand weaving is done with a traditional back-loom, and one skirt-sized piece takes approximately 1 month for a woman to weave.

The upper garments worn by men, women and children are made in the same basic way, only differing in length, colour and embellishment. The Karen make the most of their stitching, making it part of the design rather than hiding it.

The Hmong (also called the Meo)

The Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Hmong groups began a gradual southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land. The Hmong are believed to have been the original inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley in ancient China.

Today, the Hmong are located in the Thai Highlands, although some are found elsewhere within the country. Among the hilltribes, the Hmong are becoming well integrated into Thai society as well as being among the most successful. The Hmong practice shamanism and ancestor worship. Like other animists, they also believe that all things are endowed with spiritual beings and so should be respected. Hmong families in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos practice subsistence agriculture, supplemented by hunting and some foraging.

Hmong textile art (Paj ntau or Paj ntaub, or "flower cloth" in the Hmong language; sometimes transliterated as pa ntau) is closely related to practices of other ethnic minorities in China, the embroidery consists of bold geometric designs often realized in bright, contrasting colors. Different patterns and techniques of production are associated with geographical regions and cultural subdivisions within the global Hmong community.For example, White Hmong are typically associated with reverse appliqué while Green Hmong are more associated with batik. Since the mass exodus of Hmong refugees from Laos following the end of the Secret War, major stylistic changes occurred, strongly influenced by the tastes of the Western marketplace. Changes included more subdued colors and the invention of a new form often referred to as "story cloths." These cloths, ranging in size up to several square feet, use figures to represent stories from Hmong history and folklore in a narrative form. Today, the practice of embroidery continues to be passed down through generations of Hmong people and remain important markers of Hmong ethnicity.

Traditionally, paj ndau were applied to skirts worn for courtship during New Year festivals, as well as baby-carriers, and men's collars. The core visual elements of layered bands of appliqué, triangles, squares tilted and superimposed on contrasting, squares, lines and dots, spirals, and crosses. The use of border patterns may show the influence of Chinese embroidery techniques.

The Yao (also known as Mien)

The Yao reside in the mountainous terrain of the southwest and south of China and the northern mountains of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They originate in southern China, and are the only hill tribe to have a written language. Yao villages are mostly found on low hills, and their houses built usually of wooden planks on a dirt road.
There are subgroups that are named in accordance with the clothes they wear - there Red Yao, Black Yao, and Yao Tien (or ‘Money’ Yao, referring to coins that decorate their clothing).
Embroidery is integral to every Hmong woman's life. Her ability to reproduce the tribal patterns that have been formed over generations is essential in maintaining Yao identity and culture.The motifs they employ reflect the tribes religous and cultural beliefs.Nature provides most of the symbolism - bird, cat, cabbage, peach blossom, tiger's paw.

Yao women are noted for their magnificent cross-stitch embroidery, which richly decorates the clothing of every member of the family. The costume of the women is very distinctive, with a long black jacket with lapels of bright scarlet wool. Loose trousers in intricate designs are worn and a similarly embroidered black turban. Yao silversmiths produce lovely silver jewelry of high quality.

The Lahu

Lahu people are to be found in the mountains of China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and northern Thailand. There are four tribes within the Lahu: Black, Red, Yellow and She-Leh. As with the Yao, the names refer to the colour of the clothing of eacg sub-group.  Lahu villages are mostly at high altitude.They originated in south west China and are animist - they believe in one spirit with overall control over all the others.

Houses are built on high stilts with walls of bamboo or wooden planks, thatched with grass. A ladder leads to the open central living area, with a store room to one side and living quarters to the other. Their domestic animals like chicken, pigs and buffalos are kept in the basement corral.The Lahu pride themselves on their skills in hunting and trapping.

Lahu women are skilled in weaving cloth, both on back-strap and foot-treadle looms, producing delicate patchwork trims, and unusual embroidery work. The Black Lahu women wear the most distinctive costumes within this tribe, a black cloak with diagonal cream stripes. The top of the sleeve is decorated in bold colours of red and yellow. Red Lahu women wear black trousers with white edging and vivid sleeves of broad red and blue stripes.

The Akha

The Akha are an indigenous hill tribe who live in small villages at higher elevations in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Yunnan Province in China. They made their way from China into Southeast Asia during the early 20th century.

Every Akha village is distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. They life in raised houses on low stilts, with a large porch leading into a square living area with a stove at the back. The roof is steeply pitched. They life on marginal land and find it difficult to eke out a living through their slash and burn method of agriculture.

Akha society lacks a strict system of social class and is considered egalitarian. Respect is typically accorded with age and experience.

Akha women spin cotton into thread with a hand spindle, then weave it on a foot-treadle loom. The cloth is dyed with indigo, then sewed into clothing for the family. The women wear broad leggins, a short black skirt with a white beaded sporran, a loose fitting black jacket with heavily embroidered cuffs and lapels. The black caps are covered with silver coins.

The Akha are deeply superstitious, their religion prescribing exactly how each action should be performed. This tribe is the poorest of the hill tribes, but well known for their extraordinary costumes and exotic appearance.

The Lisu

Villages of this colourful ethnic group are found in the mountains of China, Myanmar and northern Thailand. They originate in eastern Tibet.

Lisu villages are usually built close to water to provide easy access for washing and drinking. Their homes are usually built on the ground and have dirt floors and bamboo walls, although an increasing number of the more affluent Lisu are now building houses of wood or even concrete

The Lisu make their clothing from gaily-coloured cloth stitched into outfits trimmed with row upon row of vari-coloured strips of cloth. The women wear brightly coloured costumes, consisting of a blue or green multi-coloured knee length tunic with a wide black belt and blue or green pants. Sleeves shoulders and cuffs are heavily embroidered with narrow, horizontal bands of blue, red and yellow. The more affluent wear massive amounts of hand-crafted silver ornaments for festive occasions.

The Lisu believe strongly in the spirit world, and their shamans are used to divine the causes and cures of all problems and sickness. Lisu history is passed from one generation to the next in the form of songs. Today, these songs are so long that they can take an entire night to sing.

These hilltribe people are perhaps the best looking of all the tribes, and they like to think of themselves a little bit above their other hilltribe neighbors. They are among the least bashful of these ethnic groups and in general adjusting well to the changes taking place in their society.

Other tribes

There are several other tribes, some like the Lawa have been in Thailand since before the Thais arrived and in most places are more or less indistinguishable from Thais who they live amongst. There is one community of 14,000 in Mae Hong Sorn province who still live their traditional lives. Other small tribes are the Khamu, the Thins, the nomadic Mlabri, and the Palong. The Palong live along the Thai-Myanmar border and are easily recognized by the striking costumes of their women, red sarong like garments, mostly a blue jacket with red collar and broad silver waistbands.




People of the Golden Triangle by Paul and Elaine Lewis

Textiles: A World Tour by Catherine Legrand