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.

woman in traditional dress
Yao woman in Baan Huay Sai village

The Yao hill tribe and tourism

Yao villages seem to be less on the tourist and trekking trail than the other hill tribes in North Thailand. Their villages usually are at high altitude. During the 1990/91 season I led tours with Dutch tourists in Thailand. The program featured a four day/three night trekking in Chiang Rai province. On the last night we stayed in Yao village on a mountain top, overlooking the city of Chiang Rai. There were two other Yao villages nearby. Currently we don’t offer a trekking that features an overnight in a Yao village.

At that time there was a strong presence of Thai border patrol police which, I was told, had to do with opium cultivation in the area. The Yao also performed for tourists at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Below photo was taken in the 1970s.

Yao women with a rice pounder

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.

I remember witnessing a ritual in a Yao village in Chiang Rai province in 1991. It involved the slaughter of chicken and collecting the blood for unknown reasons. The shaman of the village walked through a wood fire and then threw burning coal through the hut, in which there were many people of the village and also tourists. It was a rather terrifying but unforgettable experience.

Elderly tribal woman
Elderly Yao (Mien) woman, Chiang Rai province

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 livelihood of the Yao people

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.

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
Typical Yao embroidery, Baan Huay Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province

Yao Hill Tribe traditional textiles

The traditional dress of the Yao hill tribe people is stunning and very recognizable. 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. Besides that, the Yao beautifully dress up their children. The 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. To see a Yao woman sitting in front of her house stitching embroidery is a common sight.

Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours took these pictures for Green Trails. It shows a Yao woman stitching embroidery and working on the characteristic red collar.

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.

Tribal people in the past
Yao hill folk in the mountains on the west side of the Fang Valley,Chiang Mai province. November 1938. Photo by Robert Larimore Pendleton.

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.