Lahu hill tribe – History and Culture

Origins of the Lahu

The Lahu hill tribe originally lived on the Tibetan plateau and migrated gradually to Yunnan. They probably began moving into north Thailand in the 1870s or 1880s under pressure of Chinese domination.

Green Trails Lahu Hill tribe
Lahu Hilltribe man. Picture by Donna Wanderlust

Where do they live?

The Lahu hill tribe is a strong independent and very diverse ethnic group who number about 60,000 in Thailand. The Lahu are located primarily in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, but can also be found in considerable numbers as far south as Tak province. Their settlements are usually remote from roads and towns, due to their strong commitment to the maintenance of the Lahu way of life.

Subgroups of Lahu

The Lahu hill tribe group has five sub-groups: Red Lahu, Yellow Lahu, Black Lahu, White Lahu and Lahu Sheleh. The Black Lahu is the largest sub-group, making up close to 80 per cent of the Lahu population.

Lahu Language

Lahu is a Tibeto-Burman language and has various dialects. Black Lahu is the most common spoken dialect.
The language of the Lahu hill tribe has no traditional script. Three romanizations have been introduced during this century, by Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries and by Chinese government linguists.

Lahu Family Green Trails
Lahu Family. Picture by Donna Wanderlust.

Lahu Religion

The traditional religion of the Lahu hill tribe is polytheistic. Buddhism was introduced in the late 17th century and became widespread.

Culture and lifestyle

The Lahu hill tribe women wear very distinctive black and red jackets and skirts and the men wear baggy green or blue pants. They have a reputation as excellent hunters, and survive off vegetable cultivation, with some supplementing this meagre income with opium production.
Although primarily subsistence farmers, growing rice and corn for their own consumption, the Lahu hill tribe people are also proud of their hunter-warrior heritage. They remain a strict, serious people governed by strong principles of right and wrong. Every individual in the village answers to the common will of the elders. While less importance is placed on the extended family than in other hilltribe communities, the Lahu are still strongly committed to principles of unity and working together for survival. Lahu hill tribe people may have the most gender-equitable society in the world.

Important festivals

The major communal festival of the Lahu hill tribe marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, while the Festival of Eating the New Rice is also important. Christmas is an important festival among Lahu who are Christians.

Lahu in Green Trails programs

Lahu villages feature in the program private trekking in Chiang Dao.

Lahu hill tribe dance, Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center.
Lahu hill tribe dance, Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Picture courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.