Ethnic Minorities in Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities. Some of them are also known as hilltribes. Most of these people migrated from surrounding countries such as China and Myanmar and settled in the mountains of Northern Thailand. This process took place over a period of centuries. Most of the hilltribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the government to form a National Committee for Hilltribes.

Mr.Sowme Green Trails ethnic minorities
Mr. Sowme, Hmong village Ban Mae Sa Mai. Picture by Donna Bramhall

Ethnic minorities and hilltribes

The Thai government recognizes six groups of ‘hill tribes’ in Thailand: Karen, HmongYao, Lahu, Akha and Lisu. ‘Hilltribes’ is the term we will use throughout this website although many of these people live on the lowlands nowadays. We also added the Kachin and Palong (Palaung). These two tribes are more recent arrivals from Myanmar and they number not more than a couple of thousand people at the moment. The Shan are Thai speaking people and are strictly speaking not an ethnic minority. Their language and culture are very similar to those of the Thai people but we still thought that there are specific differences in their customs and traditions that deserve separate mentioning. Shan are also known as Tai Yai. Other minorities are Tai Ya and Tai Lue. They can’t be classified as tribes or ethnic minorities but they are different from Thai people in customs, language and traditional dress.

Donna Wanderlust Green Trails ethnic minorities
Tai Yar family, Chiang Rai. Picture by Donna Bramhall

Great sources

A very good source of information on the tribes of Northern Thailand is this website.

“Peoples of the Golden Triangle” from Paul and Elaine Lewis (London, 1984) is still one of the best books on the six main ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand. They have lived with the tribal groups of Northern Thailand since 1968. The results of their experience and research have been gathered in this book, along with more than 700 mainly colour photographs. Here we see not merely the landscape in which these people live, but their ceremonies their clothing, their houses and villages and their impressive skills at jewellery, textiles and basket making.

“Songs of Memory, Traditional Music of the Golden Triangle” by Victoria Vorreiter (Chiang Mai, 2009) is another fantastic book. It is about the musical heritage of the various tribes in the Golden Triangle Area and has a wealth of great pictures. Highly recommended.