The Lawa People - History and Culture

Table of Contents

The Lawa, indigenous people of North Thailand

Origins of the Lawa people

Lawa people (in Thai ลัวะ or ละว้า) are considered the indigenous people of Thailand. The Lawa or Lua people probably formed the main part of the pre-Thai population in Northern Thailand 1 The Chiang Mai Chronicle also mentions the Lawa people (reference needed). In Thai, they are named Lua.

The Lawa are quite different from the other groups such as the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Yao, and Palong). These groups migrated to Northern Thailand from the late 19th and early 20th century onwards. The Karen people arrived many centuries earlier in what is now Northern Thailand. The Lawa have been in Northern Thailand much longer. Their lifestyle and villages are similar to other hill tribes.

Traditional Lawa house in Ban Pa Pae
Traditional Lawa house

Where do the Lawa people live?

The Lawa are a relatively small group. They probably number not more than 20000 people. There is a distinction between the East and West Lawa. The East Lawa live near the village of Bo Luang on the road from Hot to Mae Sariang. The West Lawa live in Mae Sariang district.

There are Lawa villages north of the Mae Sa Valley, near Chiang Mai. There are also Lawa villages near Doi Lo, south of Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai Province, there are in total 19 Lawa Villages, 13 in Mae Hong Son Province and 1 in Chiang Rai Province 2

This article focuses on the Lawa villages in the Bo Luang and Mae La Noi areas and not on the Lawa villages in Chiang Mai province.

old Lawa woman weaving Ban Pa Pae The Lawa Hill Tribe
old Lawa woman weaving

The West Lawa people of Bo Luang

In the Lawa language, Bo (pronounced like the Thai word for a well or mine) means village. Bo Luang is the largest of five villages connected by narrow rice fields lying in the plateau’s shallow valleys. Bo Luang is in the Hot district, on the road 108, west of the town Hot. The other four villages are Bo Sa’ngae, Bo Pak Wen, Bo Wang Kong, and Bo Na Fon. The latter is about 5 km distant from Bo Luang and itself subdivided into two villages.

Further west on the road to Mae Sariang, there are two other villages, Bo Sali and Bo Kong Loi. British consul Reginald Hillyer wrote this in his tour report of 1934. “At Baw Luang is to be found a colony of Lawa (Mon-Khmer family), the remnants of a once-mighty kingdom extending over most of Northern Siam, who possess their own language and costume.”3

Young and old Lawa women in Ban Dong The Lawa Hill Tribe
Lawa women in Ban Dong

The East Lawa people: Baan Pa Pae and Baan La Up

Baan Dong and Baan La Up are in Mae La Noi District in Mae Sariang. The Lawa people who live here are called East Lawa. These villages are about 55-60 km from Mae Sariang and feature in our Mae Sariang Loop tour.

Baan Pa Pae is in Mae Sariang District. On-road 108 from Hot to Mae Sariang, you have to turn right about 20 km before reaching Mae Sariang. The road to Baan Pa Pae is a sealed road. American anthropologist Charles Keyes visited Baan Pa Pae in 1968 and took many photographs in the village. Peter Kunstadter, another American anthropologist, lived in Baan Pa Pae from January 1964 until January 1968, with several intervals.

4 Charles Keyes took many photographs in Pa Pae during a visit in 1968. In December 2018, we went to Papae and delivered prints of these photographs to local people. They recognized family members in these pictures. It was very moving. You can find the photographs and field notes of Charles Keyes on this website.

Hill tribe children The Lawa Hill Tribe
Lawa Children. Photo by John Spies

Daily life in the Lawa villages

The Lawa people of the Mae La Noi district are farmers. They grow rice. The village Ban Don has terraced rice fields so they grow wet rice. I have not seen corn around these villages. As far as I know, the Lawa were not growing opium. American anthropologist Charles Keyes visited the Lawa village Baan Dong in Mae La Noi district in 1968 and doesn’t mention opium. That doesn’t mean that there were no poppy fields in Mae La Noi district. There probably were but there might have been reasons why Keyes didn’t mention it.

Rice terraces of Baan Dong

The Language of the Lawa people

The Lawa speak a language related to the language of Mon-Khmer people who migrated to Thailand and Cambodia from Southern China about 4000 years ago 5

According to Ethnologue there are two varieties: Eastern and Western Lawa. Eastern Lawa speakers don’t understand Western Lawa and vice versa. Both are Palaungic languages, related to the language of the Palong. They belong in the Mon-Khmer aka Austro-Asiatic language family. Other languages in this group are Khmer (Cambodian) as well as Bahnar, Sedang and Rengao, languages spoken by ethnic groups in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Both Lawa languages use the Thai script.

Lawa in Chiang Mai province and around Bo Luang, Bo Sali and Ban Kong Loi speak the Eastern Lawa. The people in Baan La Up, Baan Dong, Baan Pa Pae and Baan Kok Luang, Mae Hong Son province, speak Western Lawa.

Traditional dress of the Lawa people

In Baan Dong and Baan La Up, you will see some women wear traditional dresses. I visited Bo Luang on the road from Hot to Mae Sariang and didn’t see anyone in traditional dress. The Lawa traditional dress is quite similar to the dress of the Karen people. Baan Dong has a nice weaving center where they make nice textiles. The village also has a small Lawa museum.

Piece of Lawa textiles The Lawa Hill Tribe Chiang Mai Textile Tours
Lawa textiles

The religion of the Lawa people

In the Lawa villages, there are Christians, Buddhists, and animists, and people who combine elements of these beliefs. I got the impression that Christianity really gained a firm foothold in the Lawa villages in the Mae La Noi district.

American missionaries have been active in Lawa villages for decades. They have converted many Lawa people to Christianity. Don and Janet Schlatter of the New Tribes Mission lived in Baan Kong Loi for many years. Don translated the bible into the Lawa language. People in Baan Dong spoke with respect about Father Don when I visited the village in December 2018. Every year there is a big Christmas meeting of Lawa people in Mae Hong Son province. Thousands of people showed up for the meeting that was held in Mae Sariang in 2018. I met a German missionary on one of my last visits.

Woman silver artisan Lawa Hill Tribe
A Lawa silversmith in Baan La Up

Peter Kunstadter in Baan Pa Pae

American anthropologist Peter Kunstadter 6 lived in the Lawa village Baan Pa Pae for seven months in 1964-65. He has published numerous papers, articles, and co-published books such as Farmers in the Forest: Economic Development and Marginal Agriculture in Northern Thailand.

In 1968 Kunstadter was in Baan Pa Pae with his wife Sally. He also appears in his colleague anthropologist Charles Keyes’ footnotes, who was based in Mae Sariang.

Man with camera idn village
Peter Kunstadter in Ban Pa Pae. Picture by Charles Keyes

Anthropological research in Lawa communities

Charles Keyes walked to Baan Dong in 1968

American Charles Keyes is an Emeritus Professor in Anthropology. From June 1967 until October 1968, he lived in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son Province, with his wife Jane and young son. You can find his pictures and field notes in the ResearchWorks Archive of the University of Washington. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

In January 1968, Keyes made a trip to Mae La Noi, Baan Dong, and Baan Pa Pae. On January 10, he walked to Ban Dong with a group of teachers, monks “hanger-on” to attend the celebration of the Ban Dong School opening for that year. The walk took 8,5 hours. Now there is a good road. It takes less than an hour to drive from Mae La Noi to Ban Dong. On January 15, Keyes continued to Ban Pa Pae, where his colleague Peter Kuntstadter was staying. This walk took 2 hours. On the 17th, he walked back to Mae Sariang, which took 6 hours. I am not sure if he walked all the way back to Mae Sariang or just to the main road.

Keyes made lots of pictures in Baan Dong and Baan Papae. In December 2018, I printed a number of these pictures and visited both villages. People obviously had never seen these pictures and recognized relatives. It was very touching to see their reaction.

Well known Lawa  villages

Ban Dong

The villages Baan Dong and Baan La Up are accessible via the town Mae La Noi. A beautiful winding road of about 25 km leads to Baan La Up (sometimes spelled Baan La Oop). A bit further is the Karen village Huay Horm which is very popular for its coffee and has several homestays. On the road to Huay Horm, you will pass the turnoff to Baan Dong. Baan Dong is the location of a Royal Project. Before you enter the village, there are some charming views of its rice fields. Baan Dong has several homestays and also a small weaving center.

Baan Pa Pae

Very few tourists venture out to this rather remote area. The scenery is spectacular. You can reach Baan Pa Pae from road no.108 from Hot to Mae Sariang. The road is good. In Baan Pa Pae, there is even less chance that you will meet other visitors. The Lawa people have their own traditional dress. Occasionally you will see older women wear traditional dress in the village. Some of the women are outstanding weavers. There are Homestays at Baan Pa Pae.

Ban La Up

Baan La Up is the most visited Lawa village in the country. Its location is spectacular. There are a couple of excellent silversmiths. Apart from that, there are several houses where local people produce delicious banana chips and other delicacies. Baan La Up has several homestays. It is a popular destination for Thai tourists in the cold season.

Rice terraces in the mountains
Baan Dong ricefields

Interesting links and other sources

For more information about sources on the Lawa people and other ethnic minorities in North Thailand, please go to this page.

The Lawa people in Green Trails Tours

Our sister brand Chiang Mai a la Carte offers The Journey to Doi Inthanon and Mae Sariang. This trip includes visits to Lawa villages.

It is a fantastic trip that also includes a boat trip on the Salween (Salawin) River.

During this tour you will visit Lawa villages:

  1. p.64 in Peter Kunstadter, Residential and Social Organization of the Lawa of Northern Thailand, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring, 1966), pp. 61-84 (24 pages)
  2. Dr.Ramzi W.Nahhas, Sociolinguistic Survey of Lawa in Thailand, SIL International, 2011
  3. Report on a Consular Tour made in the Province of Mehongsawn, January - February 1934 by vice-consul Chiang Mai R.A.N.Hillyer
  4. Peter Kunstadter, E. C. Chapman, Sanga Sabhasri: Farmers in the Forest: Economic Development and Marginal Agriculture in Northern Thailand, 1978,  p.119
  5. p.154 in: E.W.Hutchinson, The Lawa in Northern Thailand. Journal of the Siam Society. Vol.27 (pt.2) 1935
  6. Peter Kunstadter has been working in northern Thailand since 1963 on several ethnographic, demographic, and epidemiological studies, primarily among highland minorities, in collaboration with several Thai universities. He is recently retired from the University of California San Francisco