When most travelers think of Thailand, their minds wander to neon-soaked nightlife in the Bangkok. To others, the country is a gateway to the exotic splendor and party atmosphere of the islands. Of course, those aren’t the only cultural offerings that Thailand provides the curious traveler. In the Northern and Western regions of the beautiful country live a variety of indigenous peoples who have managed to turn their traditional way of life into a means of survival in a modern era by opening up to tourism. Treking around Chiang Mai to intermingle with them has become a big business and a must-do for travelers. Let’s take a look at some of the captivating hill tribes of Thailand.
1. The Hill Tribes of Thailand Were Left Largely Alone Until the 1950s
It was then that, thanks to an unsustainable increase in their numbers, the Thai government stepped in to help combat the rampant poverty, disease, and persistent statelessness. In order to accomplish this task, the government established the National Committee for Hill Tribes.
2. The Hardships of Rural Poverty Have Made the Hill Tribes Extremely Welcoming to Outsiders
3. There Are Seven Distinct Tribes Living in the Region
Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Paudaung. Those are just the big groups, though. Among these large umbrella classifications exist several smaller sub-categories and “clans”.
4. Each Smaller Subsection of Individual Hill Tribes Have Their Own Unique Customs
This makes traveling trough the Thailand mountains an incredibly diverse experience considering you can cover vast cultural differences in a short amount of space.
5. The Majority of Hill Tribes Practice Subsistence Farming as a Means of Self-Reliance
6. The Modern Term Used to Denote Hill Tribe Members Is “Highland Thais”
7. Most of Thailand’s Hill Tribes Are Recent Transplants
A lot of the tribes weren’t local until the last century, when they migrated to area from the interior of Asia.
8. This Colorful Garb Is Largely Non-Ceremonial
Several of the hill tribes actually wear these outfits on a daily basis.
9. Handing Over a Cigarette or Two To Children Is a Common Practice Among the Hill Tribes
The practice actually stretches back for decades (not that we support it).
10. In the 1800s, the Hill Tribes Were the Largest non-Buddhist Inhabitants of Thailand
11. The Fiercely Independent Hmong Are Known to Be Polygamists
The Hmong located in Laos also fought with the United States during the Vietnam Conflict.
12. The Karen Are the Largest of the Hill Tribes, Numbering Approximately 300,000
They’re largely Christian, and they’re known for wearing V-neck tunics sewn of various natural fibers.
13. The Akha Are Among the Most Destitute of the Hill Tribes
Numbering approximately 50,000, the Akha are extremely friendly and carry on an incredibly oral tradition going back for generations.
14. For Several Years, Opium Cultivation Was a Big Source of Income for the Tribes
The Thailand government put a lot of work into stamping the practice out by teaching individual tribes to farm cash crops like cabbage.
15. Thanks to Their Location, the Tribes are Still Pressured to Participate in Opium Growing and Trafficking
16. The Padaung Are the Tribe Best Known for Stretching Women’s Necks
The withering Thai hill tribe have long attracted visitors curious to get an up close look at one their women’s elongated necks. Girls start wearing rings at the age of five.
17. The Hill Tribes are Often Treated as Criminals and Outcasts
Some places even go so far as to refuse the hill tribes any shot at citizenship.
18. Modern Society Has Proven an Irresistible Lure
The tribes have begun to invite tourists to come mingle with them. The hope is not only to raise some money, but to reinvigorate their collective image in the mind of Thai society.