Hmong hill tribe - History and Culture​

Table of Contents

The Hmong people in Thailand

Origins of the Hmong

The Hmong Hill Tribe people originally came from China. The history of the Hmong people in China is complex: numerous times they had to fight for their homeland against Han Chinese immigrants. 

This led to large-scale migrations of Hmong people from their homeland to the south and, eventually, to Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. By the end of the 19th century, the first Hmong villages were established in Northern Thailand. For various reasons, this “Hmong diaspora” continued well into the 20th century. 

The vast majority of Hmong people still live in China but many Hmong people moved to the US after the Second Indochina War. Before trouble started in Laos at the end of the 1950s and 1960s approximately between 300,000 and 400,000 Hmong people were living in Laos.

Four children in traditional dress royal project Hmong hill tribe
Hmong children at Baan Khun Chiang Khian, early 1970s. Photo by Werner Roepke.

The Hmong in Laos

The Geneva Accords of 1954 established Laos as an independent country. In 1960 though, civil war broke out in Laos. The Royal Lao Army, supported by the United States, fought against the Pathet Lao insurgents, who were supported by the North Vietnamese communists.

In 1962 another peace conference took place in Geneva. It produced a Declaration on Laos’ Neutrality and a Lao coalition government of pro-American, pro-Communist, and neutral factions. The US, China, the Soviet Union, North, and South Vietnam, and the Royal Government of Laos were all signatorie. The United States, tshe Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, and the Pathet Lao broke the agreement almost immediately. This set the tone for a “secret war” or ‘”covert war.”

The CIA funded the Hmong people to fight the war against the Pathet Lao on behalf of the United States. After the Pathet Lao won the war and took over in 1975, they persecuted the Hmong people. Many Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand and were eventually resettled in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tribal people Hmong hill tribe
Hmong hill tribe in Chiang Mai, 1974. Source unknown.

Where do they live?

Laos, Vietnam, and China have very sizable Hmong hill tribe populations. Many Hmong live in the United States, with large Hmong populations in Minnesota, California, and Wisconsin. I remember seeing Hmong people in traditional dress selling flowers at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington State.

They live in the least thirteen provinces in North and Central Thailand. About 75% live in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phetchabun, and Tak. There are Hmong villages in Mae Hong Son, Phrae, and Nan provinces as well. They are spread over a vast area, more than any other tribe, apart from the Karen.

tribal women in front of a restaurant Hmong hill tribe
Miao in Fenghuang, China

Hmong Subgroups

In Thailand, the Hmong (ม้ง) are also known as Meo (แม้ว). The Hmong hill tribe has lots of subgroups. These vary in different countries. The subgroups in Thailand are the Black Hmong, White Hmong, and Striped Hmong. The Black Hmong live in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, Phetchabun, and Phitsanulok provinces. Their costume distinguishes them. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee-length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without a collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear a lot of jewelry made of silver.

The Striped Hmong live in the west of Nan province. They wear black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves. The White Hmong live in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long-sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions, they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front, which explains their name.

Hmong ladies working on textiles best doi suthep trail Hmong hill tribe
Hmong embroidery in Ban Mae Sa Mai

The Hmong language

The language of the Hmong hill tribe people belongs to the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) language family. In the past linguists placed the Hmong–Mien languages in the Sino-Tibetan family. Nowadays Western linguists agree that the Hmong-Mien is a separate language family.

Some helpful words in Hmong language


Hello(where are you going?)

Goodbye(come back again)



Thank you

How much


Very good

What is your name?



Ka yo mung two?

The Sang Loo



Wud dhow

Bee echo


Yung dow dow (as in down)

Bay who djam?

Ma (as in mark)

Counting in Hmong Language













One hundred












Nen ngau

Ee pwa

Hmong agriculture

Traditional rice growing and gardens in the hills have made way for various cash crops such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, and strawberries. They are substitutes for growing opium.

The Hmong hill tribe is involved in several royal projects such as the Doi Inthanon Royal Project and the Huay Luek Development Centre near Chiang Dao, focusing on crop substitution.

Ban Mae Sa Mai Hmong Village view of agricultural fields Hmong hill tribe
Ban Mae Sa Mai Hmong Village fields

Traditional Hmong Hill Tribe Textiles

The Hmong embroidery is famous. In 2017 and 2018, we successfully organized textile workshop tours for Haute Culture Textile Tours to the Hmong village Ban Mae Sa Mai. If you are interested, please contact us.

These pictures were taken by Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours for Green Trails. To enlarge, click on the image.

Important Hmong festivals

The most important festival of the Hmong hill tribe is the Hmong New Year, which will is celebrated in December or January.

Hmong women walking to the New Years festivities at Baan Mae Sa Mai Hmong Hill tribe
Hmong New Year at Baan Mae Sa Mai. Picture by Sabine Frijns

The Hmong and the cultivation of opium

Just as gambling, lottery, and alcohol, the distribution of opium was a Royal monopoly. Thailand had many opium addicts and was dependent on the import of opium in the 20th century.

Terry Grandstaff argues that it is a common misconception that opium played a central role in Hmong culture. Rice is central to Hmong society and culture, not opium. Rice has been by far the most important crop for the Hmong. 1

School children in traditional dress Hmong hill tribe
Hmong pupils of Baan Khun Chang Khian school, ca.1975. Picture by Werner Röpke.

Bill Geddes and the Meo

The Australian anthropologist Bill Geddes (1916-1989) researched in a Meo village in Northern Thailand. American anthropology student Michael Moerman contacted Geddes in 1959 to ask for advice concerning research. Geddes didn’t recommend Moerman to make the Meo the subject of his research for several reasons: “To reach this group that I studied, I had to walk 25 miles from the road junction and climb up to 6,000 ft. Supplies were difficult. The people did not have any surplus over their own requirements – in fact, they traded part of their opium to get rice. Therefore, all supplies had to be carried into the village.” 2

Also, the language caused a problem because it was highly tonal, and there were practically no writings in it. It had to be learned on the spot. Geddes wrote that the Meo are suspicious of strangers as the government had been showing signs that they wanted to suppress the growth of opium.

The Royal Project and pacification

In 1969 his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Hmong communities on Doi Suthep mountain. Since 1961 the Royal Family has a residence, the Bhubing Palace, on the mountain, which brought the king to the Hmong communities living there. He initiated a project to help the Hmong tribal people eradicate opium cultivation and start growing other cash crops. It was the beginning of the Royal Project that can be considered one of his lasting legacies. The project aimed to lift tribal villages and other disadvantaged communities out of poverty.

Baan Doi Pui

Baan Doi Pui is the most well-known Hmong village on Doi Suthep. This community attracts many tourists on day trips from Chiang Mai. There are a small waterfall and an extensive souvenir market. There are several restaurants, as well. The village also boasts a small museum about Hmong history and culture. Our one-day Opium Trail trekking starts in this village.

Panorama of mountains and village Hmong hill tribe
Doi Pui Hmong Village

Hmong Hill Tribe Villages on Doi Suthep

The Hmong villages on Doi Suthep/Doi Pui have a turbulent history. It is not clear when exactly these communities moved into the Doi Suthep/Doi Pui area. The Hmong migrations into Southeast Asia from southern China have likely taken place in the last 50 to 100 years. It is a reasonable estimate that they arrived in Chiang Mai Province only in the last 40 to 50 years.

There are records of a few Hmong villages in remote areas of Thailand around the century. Still, most likely, Hmong first began arriving in substantial numbers several decades later. The first village in Mae Rim District in central Chiang Mai Province, for example, was founded around 1944. 3

What is certain is that after World War Two, many tribal people migrated from China and Burma to Thailand for different reasons. In short, Thailand was a safer place to live. There are ten Hmong Hill Tribe communities in and around Doi Suthep/Doi Pui National Park. Another well-known national park where Hmong people are living in the park is Doi Inthanon National Park.

Baan Mae Sa Mai

Baan Mae Sa Mai is the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. The village is in Mae Rim district, about one hour drive from Chiang Mai. The Hmong settled here in 1967. In 1981 the village became included within the boundaries of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park. Authorities allowed the people to stay, but their activities are restricted. Our one day Opium Trail trekking ends in this village.

Panorama of a village, forests and fields Doi Suthep Trekking
View on Ban Mae Sa Mai village

Baan Khun Chang Khian

The location of Baan Khun Chang Khian is close to the summit of Doi Pui. Also, this village is within the boundaries of the Doi Pui-Doi Suthep National Park. Far fewer people visit this community than Baan Doi Pui. The road leading to the village is in poor condition.

In 1974 Indian merchants from Chiang Mai donated money to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej for a school in Baan Khun Chang Khian. The King named this school “Srinehru” in memory of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964).

Interesting links and other sources

For more information about sources on the Hmong people and other ethnic minorities in North Thailand, please go to this page.

The Hmong People in Green Trails tours

The following Green Trails programs feature visit to Hmong villages:

  1. p.70 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium, and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok
  2. Letter from Bill Geddes to Michael Moerman, April 24, 1959
  3. P.71 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium, and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok