Ethnic Minorities in Thailand

Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities. Some of them are also known as hill tribes. The Chiang Mai Hill Tribes are an essential part of the tours of Green Trails. They are fascinating people and very different from the Thai people. Each tribe has its language, culture, traditional dress and peculiarities. The Thai people call them “chao khao” which means “people from the mountain”. At the end of the 1990s, they numbered about 840000 people out of a population of about 65 million. On this page we give a very short introduction of the history and current situation of these tribal groups.

Children and girls in tribal dress
Lisu wedding at Doi Lan village in the 1980s. Picture by Otome Klein Hutheesing.

Origin and migration

On this website we focus primarily on the groups that are known as hill tribes, a term which started to become common in the early 1960s. There are six main tribal groups that people consider hill tribes: Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, Yao and Karen. The Dara-ang people or Palaung, in Thailand known as Palong, are the most recent migrants from Myanmar. They came to Thailand in the 1980s.

The Karen are believed to migrated to the country, now known as Thailand,  centuries ago. The other groups have migrated to Thailand (then Siam) roughly since the early 1900s. These seven groups feature in trekking programs for tourists since the mid-1970s. Their different culture, colourful dress and remote “untouched” lifestyle have attracted tourists.

Tribal woman with bamboo plate
Akha woman in Ban Apha. Picture by Gary Latham.

The war in Indochina

Anthropologists and missionaries were the only people interested in the hill tribes until the late 1950s. They lived their lives in remote villages and were more or less selfsustaining. The situation changed in the following decade. Southeast Asia was in the grip of the struggle against the communist threat. War raged in Vietnam, Laos and later Cambodia. In this war Thailand was a pivotal ally of the United States in Southeast Asia. The government started to see the tribal groups as potential allies of a communist insurgency. American and Australian anthropologists started to conduct research in tribal villages in North Thailand. Often institutions such as the Ford Foundation funded the research of these anthropologists.

Tribal bag with silver jewellery Lahu hill tribe
Lahu textile bag

Integration into Thai society

The security aspect was not the only reason for the Thai government to start a drive to integrate the hill tribes into Thai society. Their slash and burn agricultural practices were destroying the forest and damaging watersheds of the lowlands. Communities were moving regularly. The government established schools and other facilities to keep communities in the same place. The government discouraged the preservation of tribal traditions, religion and language. The tribal people were educated to become Thai citizens, speak the Thai language and respect the monarchy.

The emancipation of tribal groups has come a long way. Many of them now have Thai citizenship but there are still many examples of discrimation against these people.

Girl weaving with local woman
Learn Dara-ang weaving

Tours to Chiang Mai Hill Tribes

For more than 20 years we have been organizing tours to tribal communities. Over time we have made changes in our way of working with these communities. For many years tours and trekkings to hill tribe communities have been like transactions. It is our aim to make our tours mutual learning experiences. We want to promote local traditions, crafts and languages. We think that your visit can make a difference. We will not always be able to achieve that but we will do our best.