Yao Hill Tribe - History and Culture

Table of Contents

Origins of the Yao Hill Tribe

The Yao hill tribe originally come from Southern China. They also call themselves “Mien.” From the late 1800s to the early 19th century, the Yao started migrated into Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.

tribal woman
Yao woman in Baan Huay Sai village

Where do they live?

In Thailand, Mien or Yao hill tribe communities live in Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, and Kamphaeng Phet provinces. Most likely, you will meet them in Chiang Rai province. In Vietnam, they are called “Zao.” There are Red and Black Zao in Vietnam. Like the Hmong People, the Yao supported the American cause during the Laotian civil war in the 1960s and 70s. After the war, the Pathet Lao regime started to persecute the Yao people. Consequently, many of them sought refuge in Thailand, and ultimately some of them were able to resettle in the United States. Most of them live on the West Coast.


Yao subgroups and language

There are various subgroups among the Yao. The Lanten is an important subgroup. They are also known as the “Indigo Yao.” You can find Lanten communities in Laos, not in Thailand.

The Yao hill tribe people have no written script and use Chinese characters. The various subgroups speak a different language. Here are some valid words in the Yao language.





Thank you

How much







What is your name?

Moi Ming Hai?




Liang Tsing

Betear Nyan



Wom (as in woman)




May Hew Hoonyong?












One hundred







Seea (a as in cat)






A Mien (Yao) woman from Huaysai village, Chiang Rai, tell us how to count from 1 to 10 in her language:

Religion, culture, and lifestyle

The Yao hill tribe people in Thailand are primarily Buddhists. Most of them have mixed elements of Buddhism with their traditional animistic beliefs. Animism encompasses the assumptions that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world. Animists believe that souls or spirits exist in humans and animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment. Animists often seek help through supernatural spirits and objects.

Michael Rogge: Yao, Lahu, and Lisu hill tribes in 1965

Michael Rogge (1929- ) is a Dutch photographer,  amateur filmmaker, and videographer. He is best known for his depictions of life in the Far East, in particular, Hong Kong and Japan after World War Two. His YouTube channel also features videos of Thailand, made by other people. Below video shows village life in Yao, Lahu and Lisu communities in North Thailand.

The Yao prefer high altitude dwellings. Their homes are usually on solid ground. In a traditional Yao home, you will find a communal living area, a few bedrooms, and a guest area. I remember from personal experience three Yao villages on a mountain top in Chiang Rai province. We had a great view and could see the lights of the city Chiang Rai after dark.

The Yao typically grow corn and rice as their primary crops, though they are known to grow other crops. The Yao adapted to Thai agriculture and learning to produce various new vegetables with each passing year. Opium cultivation is still relevant in some Yao culture sections, though the tradition is on the decline. In the early 1990s, the cultivation of opium was still a problem in Northern Thailand. In the three Yao villages, there was a presence of Thai border police to control the situation.

Tribal embroidery
Yao textiles shirt Baan Huay Sai

Yao Hill Tribe traditional textiles

The traditional attire of the Yao hill tribe people is stunning. The women wear long black jackets with scarlet woolen lapels. They also wear loose black pants embroidered with exquisite designs and a matching black turban—the Yao beautifully dress up their children. Yao babies commonly wear intricately embroidered caps. Men wear loose jackets with embroidered pockets and trim. Jewelry is fashionable in Yao culture as well.

During special events, women and children often wear silver neck rings and an intricate set of chains and ornaments. The silversmiths of the Yao hill tribe are renowned throughout Thailand for their impressive skills. The women are known for their rich embroidery and cross-stitch. The intricate designs are unique facets to the clothing of each member of the Yao family. The Yao are also known for producing exquisite silver pieces. These skills account for a large part of their economy.

Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours took this picture for Green Trails.

Collar of the Yao
Making the collar of the Yao

Important festivals

The most important festival of the Yao hill tribe people is that of New Year. It falls on the same date as the Chinese New Year. More on the Yao New Year here.

Yao hill tribe women at the Old Cultural Center Chiang Mai

Interesting links and other sources

For more information on books and other sources on the Yao People and other ethnic minorities of North Thailand, check out this page.

Green Trails tours featuring the Yao Hill Tribe

At this moment, we don’t have a standard tour that features a visit to a Yao village. We have successfully operated tours to Yao communities, focusing on tribal textiles. During this tour, guests would learn to make a Yao collar specific to this ethnic group.

If you are interested, please contact us: info@green-trails.com.