Hmong hill tribe – History and Culture

Index
Origins of the Hmong
Where do they live?
Hmong subgroups and language
Hmong religion, culture and lifestyle
Traditional Hmong Textiles
Hmong Jewellery
Important Hmong festivals
The Hmong and the cultivation of opium
The Royal Project and pacification
Hmong Villages on Doi Suthep
Baan Doi Pui
Baan Mae Sa Mai
Baan Khun Chang Khian
The Hmong in Green Trails tours

Origins of the Hmong

The Hmong originally come 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.

Hmong women walking to the New Years festivities at Baan Mae Sa Mai Hmong Hill tribe
Hmong New Year at Baan Mae Sa Mai. Picture by Sabine Frijns

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

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.

wife of Sowmee Mo knitting
Mo wife of Sowmee

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

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?

The 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, culture and lifestyle

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 will reincarnate and the other remains in the grave with the corpse.

Sowmee silversmith Ban Mae Sa Mai

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.

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.

Ban Mae Sa Mai Hmong Village view of agricultural fields
Ban Mae Sa Mai Hmong Village fields
Hmong New Year. Boys playing a game at Baan Mae Sa Mai
Young boys playing game during Hmong New Year at Baan Mae Sa Mai village.

Traditional Hmong 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.

Tribal textiles
Hmong textiles in Doi Pui village

Hmong Jewellery

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.

Young people in tribal dress throwing balls
Ball throwing game during Hmong New Year in Ban Mae Sa Mai

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.

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 a higher elevation, so it was no competition to lowland farmers. The Yunnan variety of the opium poppy that grows in Southeast Asia only prospers in a cold temperate climate. In these tropical latitudes, it 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 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.” 1

The Haw opium traders

Moor wrote that Siamese authorities were well aware of the opium cultivation. Opium farm officials told people that cultivation was only for local consumption. Moor didn’t believe this: “This seems very unlikely, as the Meaos exhibited signs of the possession of considerable wealth, which  is quite impossible to account for by their ostensible occupation of breeding pigs and the cultivation of hill rice and Indian corn, none of which are raised in quantities much exceeding he requirements of local consumption.”

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

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.

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.” 2

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.

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. 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).

View from Ban Mae Sa Mai over Mae Rim
Ban Mae Sa Mai view

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. It 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.

Two women in traditional dress
Baan Khun Chang Khian Hmong women, ca.1975. Picture by Werner Röpke.

Hmong 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. 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.

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.

Panorama of mountains and village

Baan Mae Sa Mai

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.

Panorama of a village, forests and fields
Ban Mae Sa Mai 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).

School children in traditional dress in front of a school Hmong hilltribe
Baan Khun Chang Khian Sri Nehru School, ca.1975. Picture by Werner Röpke.

The Hmong in Green Trails tours

The following Green Trails programs contain visit to Hmong village:

  1. Consular tour to Phré, Chiengkam, Chiengmai and Chiengsen, 1905-1906, National Archives, London, UK
  2. Letter from Bill Geddes to Michael Moerman, April 24, 1959