Hmong hill tribe – History and Culture

Origins of the Hmong

It is not entirely clear where the Hmong hill tribe originally came from. Most probably their ancestors lived in Tibet and China. The Hmong have a very strong urge to remain independent. Attempts from Chinese authorities to subjugate them and force them to integrate has led to a real Hmong diaspora. By the end of the 19th century the first Hmong villages were established in Northern Thailand. Many Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand and were resettled in the United States after 1975.

Chiang Mai, 1974. Hmong hill tribe
Hmong hill tribe in Chiang Mai, 1974. Source unknown.

Where do they live?

Laos, Vietnam and China have very sizable Hmong hill tribe populations. Many Hmong live in the United States with large Hmong populations in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. They live in a least thirteen provinces in North and Central Thailand. About 75% live in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phetchabun and Tak. There are Hmong villages in Mae Hong Son, Phrae and Nan provinces as well. They are spread over a very large area, more than any other tribe apart from the Karen.

The Black Hmong are located in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, northern Phetchabun and Phitsanulok. They are distinguished by their costume. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear alot of jewelry made of silver. You may have seen documentaries on the Hmong sub groups and have seen their traditional outfits. The Striped Hmong can be found in the west of Nan. They wear Black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves.
The White Hmong are to be found in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front.

Hmong Subgroups

The Hmong hill tribe has lots of subgroups. These vary in the different countries. The sub groups in Thailand are the Black Hmong, White Hmong and Striped Hmong. The Black Hmong are located in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok. They are distinguished by their costume. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear a lot of jewelry made of silver.
The Striped Hmong can be found in the west of Nan. They wear Black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves. The White Hmong are to be found in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front which explains their name.

Hmong trekking. Hmong hilltribe women at Baan Mae Sa Mai.
Hmong hilltribe at Baan Mae Sa Mai. Hmong trekking.

Hmong Language

The language of the Hmong hill tribe people belongs to the Austro-Thai linguistic family of the Miao-Yao sub group.

Hello(where are you going?)

Goodbye(come back again)

Yes

No

Thank you

How much

Good

Very good

What is your name?

Rice

Ka yo mung two?

Teha Sang Loo

Uhh

Yong

Wud dhow

Bee echo

Yung

Yung dow dow (as in down)

Bay who djam?

Ma (as in mark)

Mr.Sowme Green Trails
Hmong headman Ban Mae Sa Mai, Chiang Mai.

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Twenty

One hundred

Ee

Oar

Pay

Blau

Tjur

Tjoa

Tchian

Yi

Tjiaw

Khao

Nen ngau

Ee pwa

Hmong Religion

The Hmong hill tribe people in Thailand believe in a mixture of animism and shamanism with ancestor worship. Villages have spirit shrines to protect from evil. There are village and house spirits. The Hmong bury their dead and believe each person has three souls, and that upon death, one goes to heaven, one goes to be reincarnated and the other remains in the grave with the corpse.

Hmong guide Doi Suthep trekking

Culture and lifestyle

Traditional rice growing and gardens in the hills is being replaced by emphasis on other cash crops — cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries — which were introduced as a substitute for opium growing. Hmong hill tribe are involved in several royal projects such as the Doi Inthanon Royal Project and the Huay Luek Development Centre near Chiang Dao which focus on crop substitution.

Important festivals

The most important festival of the Hmong hill tribe is the Hmong New Year. This will be celebrated in December or January.

Hmong women walking to the New Years festivities at Ban Mae Sa Mai
Hmong New Year at Ban Mae Sa Mai. Picture by Sabine Frijns
Hmong New Year. Boys playing a game at Ban Mae Sa Mai

Hmong Villages on Doi Suthep

The Hmong villages that are located on Doi Suthep/Doi Pui have a turbulent history. It is not clear when these communities moved into the Doi Suthep/Doi Pui area. What is certain is that after World War Two many tribal people migrated from China and Burma to Thailand for different reasons. In short, Thailand was a saver place to live.

Just as gambling, lottery and alcohol the distribution of opium was a Royal monopoly. Thailand had many opium addicts and was totally dependent on the import of opium.

People of these tribes started to grow opium in the 1950s. It became an important cash crop for the Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu and to the Akha and Karen to a lesser extent. Opium has a lot of advantages: it is easy to grow, doesn’t spoil and has high value for low volume. It could only grow at higher elevation so it was no competion to lowland farmers. The Yunnan variety of the opium poppy that is grown in Southeast Asia only prospers in a cool temperate climate. In these tropical latitudes it must be grown in mountains above three thousand feet in elevation, where the air is cool enough for the sensitive poppy.

Traders came to the village to buy the opium which was another advantage. In 1959 the cultivation of opium became illegal by law making the growing of opium much more risky.

Pile of opium pipes at Tha Pae Gate after the ban on opium in 1959
Police and Excise Department officers had gathered the opium pipes and piled them at Tha Pae Gate before the burning in 1959. Picture by Boonserm Satrabhaya

Despite the ban on consumption and cultivation of opium the cultivation continued unabated in the Northern Highlands in the 1960s. This was also fueled by the demand of US troops involved in the Vietnam conflict. In that period North Thailand really was in turmoil. Several armed groups such as the United Shan State Army of Khun Sa and the Chinese KMT army were controling the opium trade. In 1967 a battle took place on the border of Thailand and Laos involving drug traders.

The Royal Project and pacification

In 1969 his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Hmong communities in Doi Suthep. The Royal Family had a palace on Doi Suthep. He initiated a project to help the Hmong tribal people to eradicate opium cultivation and to start growing other cash crops. This was the beginning of the Royal Project that can be considered one of his lasting legacies. The aim was to lift tribal and other disadvantaged communities out of poverty.