Chiang Mai Hill Tribes

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.

one young and one old Lawa woman in Ban Pa Pae
Lawa women in Baan Dong

Some of them, like the Lawa, H’tin and most probably the Karen, have been living in areas now part of the Thai nation-state before the Thai speaking ethnic groups immigrated at the beginning of the second millennium. The Hmong, Yao, and Lahu migrated since the middle of the 19th century into present-day Thailand. The Lisu and Akha arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. Linguistically Lawa, H’tin, and Khamu languages belong to the group of Mon-Khmer languages. Hmong and Yao are part of the Austro-Thai language group. Akha, Lisu, Lahu, and Karen are usually classified as Tibeto-Burman languages, although there is some discussion regarding the status of the Karen language within this group.

Migration over the years

Most of the Chiang Mai hill tribes migrated from surrounding countries such as China and Myanmar and settled in the mountains of Northern Thailand. This process took place over centuries. Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the late 1950s. Several factors forced the Thai government to start to pay more attention to these mountain dwellers.

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

Ethnic minorities and hill tribes

The Thai government recognizes six Chiang Mai hill tribes in North 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 Dara-ang, in Thailand known as the Palong (Palaung). The Palong are more recent arrivals from Myanmar, and the number not more than a couple of thousand people at the moment.

The Lawa, H’tin and Khamu have been living in North Thailand longer than the Thais. They are considered indigenous people. Thai speaking ethnic groups migrated from China at the beginning of the second millennium. The Karen probably migrated to North Thailand earlier than the other Chiang Mai hill tribes.

Shan or Tai Yai

The Shan are strictly speaking, not an ethnic minority. Their language and culture are very similar to those of the Thai people. However, 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 usually are not classified as tribes or ethnic minorities, but they are different from Thai people in customs, language and traditional dress.

Chiang Mai Hill Tribes

The following Chiang Mai Hill Tribes feature in our tours:

Karen, Akha and Yao

The Karen: this is by far the biggest group of hill tribe people. The Karen live at relatively low elevation compared to the other groups. They seem to have been integrated with Thai people more than other groups. The Karen traditionally have been the owners of elephants. Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces have large Karen populations. The Karen have two main groups: Pwo and Skaw Karen, but there are many other smaller subgroups such as the Padaung, the Long Neck Karen.

The Akha: they are the most recognizable tribal people in Thailand thanks to the beautiful headdress of the woman. There are three different subgroups: Akha Lomi, Phami and Ulo. Chiang Rai province has the most Akha villages in North Thailand.

The Yao: they are also known as Mien. There are Yao/Mien villages in Chiang Rai and Nan provinces. Yao villages usually are on mountain ridges or tops.

Hmong, Lisu, Lahu and Palong

The Hmong: this group is widespread. There are Hmong villages in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan and Mae Hong Son provinces. Subgroups are striped, white and blue Hmong.

The Lisu: the Lisu women wear distinctive traditional dress. The Lisu have cross-border contacts with Lisu people in China and Myanmar. It is quite unusual. There are Lisu villages in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces.

The Lahu: the Lahu are a relatively small group. They are known as the best hunters when there still was something to hunt in North Thailand. There are Red, Yellow and Black Lahu which has to do with the colour of their dress. The Lahu Sheleh is another subgroup.

The Palong: these people call themselves Dara-ang but are known in Thailand as Palaung or Palong. They arrived in North Thailand in the 1980s, escaping political conflict in their home country Myanmar. The women wear colourful dress and are excellent weavers.

Excellent sources of Chiang Mai Hill Tribes

An excellent source of information on Chiang Mai Hill Tribes is this website.


“The Hilltribes of Northern Thailand” by Gordon Young. It is one of the first books about Chiang Mai hill tribes published in 1962: you can download the book online.

“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 are gathered in this book, which contains more than 700, mainly colour photographs. Here we see the landscape in which these people live. The book also focuses on 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. We highly recommend this book.