Hmong hill tribe - History and Culture
Table of Contents
The Hmong people in Thailand
Origins of the Hmong
The Hmong Hill Tribe originally comes from Southern China. During the 18th century conflict between the Hmong and newly arrived Han settlers increased. The Qing dynasty imposed repressive economic and cultural reforms on the Hmong people which led to the Hmong rebellion (1795-1806). This led to large-scale migrations of Hmong people from their homeland to the south and, eventually, to Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. By the end of the 19th century, the first Hmong villages were established in Northern Thailand.
The Hmong in Laos
The Geneva Accords of 1954 established Laos as an independent country. In 1960 though, civil war broke out in Laos. The Royal Lao Army, supported by the United States, fought against the Pathet Lao. These were insurgents, supported by the North Vietnamese communists.
In 1962 another peace conference took place in Geneva. It produced a Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos and a Lao coalition government of pro-American, pro-Communist and neutral factions. The US, China, Soviet Union, North and South Vietnam and the Royal Government of Laos were all signatories, along with other countries. The United States, the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao broke the agreement almost immediately. This set the tone for a “secret war” or ‘”covert war”.
The CIA funded the Hmong people to fight the war against the Pathet Lao on behalf of the United States. After the Pathet Lao won the war and took over in 1975 they started to persecute the Hmong people. Many Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand and were eventually resettled in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
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. I remember seeing Hmong people in traditional dress selling flowers at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington State.
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 vast area, more than any other tribe, apart from the Karen.
Hmong Subgroups and language
In Thailand the Hmong are also known as Meo or Miao. The Hmong hill tribe has lots of subgroups. These vary in different countries. The subgroups in Thailand are the Black Hmong, White Hmong and Striped Hmong. The Black Hmong live in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok provinces. Their costume distinguishes them. 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 jewellery made of silver.
The Striped Hmong live in the west of Nan province. They wear black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves.The White Hmong live 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.
The language of the Hmong hill tribe people belongs to the Miao-Yao (Hmong-Mien) language family. In the past linguists placed the Hmong–Mien languages in the Sino-Tibetan family. Nowadays Western linguists agree that the Hmong-Mien is a separate language family.
Some helpful words in Hmong language
Hello(where are you going?)
Goodbye(come back again)
What is your name?
Ka yo mung two?
The Sang Loo
Yung dow dow (as in down)
Bay who djam?
Ma (as in mark)
Counting in Hmong Language
Traditional rice growing and gardens in the hills has made way for various cash crops such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries. They are substitutes for growing opium.
Traditional Hmong Hill Tribe Textiles
The Hmong embroidery is famous. In 2017 and 2018 we successfully organised textile workshop tours for Haute Culture Textile Tours to the Hmong village Ban Mae Sa Mai. If you are interested, please contact us.
These pictures were taken by Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours for Green Trails. To enlarge click on the image.
Baan Mae Sa Mai is the home of Sowmee, the silversmith of the village. Sowmee has made jewellery for the Thai royal family and is an artisan of national fame. He makes beautiful silver rings and other jewellery. You can visit his workshop. Sowmee also acts as one of our guides.
Important Hmong festivals
The most important festival of the Hmong hill tribe is the Hmong New Year, which will is celebrated in December or January. The Hmong New Year festivities in 2019 took place from December 26 until 30.
The Hmong and the cultivation of opium
History of Opium cultivation
Just as gambling, lottery and alcohol, the distribution of opium was a Royal monopoly. Thailand had many opium addicts and was dependent on the import of opium in the 20th century.
Terry Grandstaff argues that it is a common misconception that opium played a central role in Hmong culture. Rice is central to Hmong society and culture, not opium. Rice has been by far the most important crop for the Hmong. 1
Hill 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 is easy to grow, doesn’t spoil and has high value for low volume. It only grows at a higher elevation in a cold temperate climate, so it was no competition to lowland farmers. In these tropical latitudes, the Yunnan variety of the opium poppy grows in the mountains above three thousand feet in elevation, where the air is cold enough for the sensitive poppy.
British consuls visit Chiengkham in 1905
There is evidence that the Hmong (called Meao in this excerpt) were already growing opium a long time before that. Traders came to the village to buy the opium, which was another advantage. British consuls W.A.R.Wood and G.H.R.Moor visited the Chiang Kham (Chiengkham in the old spelling) district in late 1905:
“The next place to be visited was Chiengkam and as circumstances rendered it necessary to go there via Nan, Mr.Wood and myself on quitting the latter place, took the “Doi Ku” route which passes through one of the districts where opium is said to be cultivated and sold by the hill “Meaos” and which I had for long been anxious to visit.”
Moor continues: “The pass over the Doi Ku is about 2000 feet in direct ascent, and it is on the higher parts of the mountain, which must be 5000 – 6000 feet at its summit that the cultivation of opium is carried on. Mr Wood and myself followed one of the side tracks for a long way but we could not reach the actual poppy plantations. These were however pointed out to us from a distance and there is plenty of direct evidence as to the existence and to the carrying on of a trade in opium.” 2
American anthropologist Michael Moerman took below picture in January 1960 of a Hmong caravan passing through Ban Ping, a village close to Chiang Kham.
The Haw opium traders
Moore concludes that they found evidence that Haw traders came up the difficult mountain trails with their pack mules to buy opium from the villagers. He also writes that the Meao were “very reticent on the subject of opium cultivation and are evidently aware of the illicit nature thereof.”
Bill Geddes about the Meo
The Australian anthropologist Bill Geddes (1916-1989) did research in a Meo village in Northern Thailand. American anthropology student Michael Moerman contacted Geddes in 1959 to ask for advice concerning research. Geddes didn’t recommend Moerman to make the Meo the subject of his research for several reasons: “To reach this group that I studied, I had to walk 25 miles from the road junction and climb up to 6,000 ft. Supplies were difficult. The people did not have any surplus over their own requirements – in fact they traded part of their opium to get rice. Therefore, all supplies had to be carried into the village.” 3
Also the language caused a problem because it was highly tonal and there were practically no writings in it. It had to be learned on the spot. Geddes wrote that the Meo are suspicious of strangers as the government had been showing signs that they wanted to suppress the growing of opium.
Thai government prohibits the use and trade of opium
In 1958 the Thai government prohibited the use and trade of opium making the growing of opium much more risky. The death sentence could be applied to people trading opium.
Despite the ban on consumption and cultivation of opium, the cultivation continued unabated in the Northern Highlands in the 1960s. It was also fueled by the demand of US troops involved in the Vietnam conflict. In that period, North Thailand was in turmoil. Several armed groups such as the United Shan State Army of Khun Sa and the Chinese KMT army were controlling the opium trade. In 1967 a battle took place on the border of Thailand and Laos involving drug traders.
The Thai army attacked Khun Sa’s headquarters in a town called Ban Hin Taek in 1982 and drove Khun Sa and his army across the border into Burma. The Thai government has changed the name of Ban Hin Taek in Therd Thai. The former headquarters of Khun Sa has become a small museum. Therd Thai is a bit of an off-the-beaten-track destination but worth a visit, if you have the time. Few tourists venture out to this large, remote village. The people of Therd Thai are mainly Shan (Tai Yai).
The Royal Project and pacification
In 1969 his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Hmong communities on Doi Suthep mountain. Since 1961 the Royal Family has a residence, the Bhubing Palace, on the mountain, which brought the king very close to the Hmong communities living there. He initiated a project to help the Hmong tribal people to eradicate opium cultivation and to start growing other cash crops. It was the beginning of the Royal Project that can be considered one of his lasting legacies. The aim of the project was to lift tribal villages and other disadvantaged communities out of poverty.
Hmong Hill Tribe Villages on Doi Suthep
The Hmong villages on Doi Suthep/Doi Pui have a turbulent history. It is not clear when exactly these communities moved into the Doi Suthep/Doi Pui area. The Hmong migrations into Southeast Asia from southern China have likely taken place in the last 50 to 100 years. It is a reasonable estimate that they arrived in Chiang Mai Province only in the last 40 to 50 years. There are records of a few Hmong villages in remote areas of Thailand around the turn of the century but most likely Hmong first began arriving in substantial numbers several decades later. The first village in Mae Rim District in central Chiang Mai Province, for example, was founded around 1944. 4
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 safer place to live. There are ten Hmong Hill Tribe communities in and around Doi Suthep/Doi Pui National Park. Another well-known national park where Hmong people are living in the park is Doi Inthanon National Park.
Baan Doi Pui
Baan Doi Pui is the most well-known Hmong village on Doi Suthep. This community attracts many tourists on day trips from Chiang Mai. There is a small waterfall and an extensive souvenir market. There are several restaurants, as well. The village also boasts a small museum about Hmong history and culture. Our one day Opium Trail trekking starts in this village.
Baan Mae Sa Mai is the largest Hmong community in North Thailand. The village is in Mae Rim district, about one hour drive from Chiang Mai. The Hmong settled here in 1967. In 1981 the village became included within the boundaries of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park. Authorities allowed the people to stay, but their activities are restricted. Our one day Opium Trail trekking ends in this village.
Baan Khun Chang Khian
The location of Baan Khun Chang Khian is close to the summit of Doi Pui. Also, this village is within the boundaries of the Doi Pui-Doi Suthep National Park. Far less people visit this community than Baan Doi Pui. The road leading to the village is in poor condition.
In 1974 Indian merchants from Chiang Mai donated money to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej for the foundation of a school in Baan Khun Chang Khian. The King named this school “Srinehru” in memory of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964).
The Hmong People in Green Trails tours
The following Green Trails programs feature visit to Hmong villages:
- p.70 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok
- Consular tour to Phré, Chiengkam, Chiengmai and Chiengsen, 1905-1906, National Archives, London, UK
- Letter from Bill Geddes to Michael Moerman, April 24, 1959
- P.71 Terry B.Grandstaff, The Hmong, Opium and the Haw, speculations on the origin of their association, The Siam Society, Bangkok