Lawa Hill Tribe – History and Culture


Origins of the Lawa Hill Tribe
Where does the Lawa Hill Tribe live?
Lawa Hill Tribe subgroups
Religion of the Lawa Hill Tribe
Anthropological research in Lawa communities
Traditional dress of the Lawa Hill Tribe
Popular Lawa Hill Tribe villages
Lawa Hill Tribes in Green Trails Tours

Origins of the Lawa Hill Tribe

Lawa people are considered the indigenous people of Thailand. The Lawa 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.

We have called them the Lawa Hill Tribe although they are quite different from the other hill tribes 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.

Old and young woman in traditional dress Lawa Hill Tribe
Lawa women In Ban Dong, Mae Hong Son province

Where does the Lawa Hill Tribe live?

The Lawa are a 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

In this article I focus on the Lawa villages in the Bo Luang and Mae La Noi areas and not on the Lawa villages in Chiang Mai province.

Green rice terraces and mountains
Ban Dong rice fields

The West Lawa Hill Tribe: 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 shallow valleys on the plateau. Bo Luang is in Hot district, on the road 108, west of the town of 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

The East Lawa Hill Tribe: Baan Pa Pae and Baan La Up

Ban Pa Pae is in Mae Sariang District, Mae Hong Son Province. Baan Dong and Baan La Up are in Mae La Noi District in the same province. The Lawa living here are called East Lawa. On the road 108 from Hot to Mae Sariang, you have to turn right about 20 km before you reach Mae Sariang. The road to Baan Pa Pae is a sealed road. American anthropologist Charles Keyes visited Baan Pa Pae in 1968 and made 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 made 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 on these pictures. It was very moving. You can find the photographs and field notes of Charles Keyes on this website

Green rice fields Lawa Hill Tribe

Language of the Lawa Hill Tribe

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. People in La-Up, Ban Dong, Ban Pa Pae and Ban Kok Luang, Mae Hong Son province, speak Western Lawa.

Lawa at the Christmas meeting, Mae Sariang, 2018

Religion of the Lawa Hill Tribe

In the Lawa Hill Tribe villages there are Christians, Buddhists and animists as well as people who combine elements of these beliefs. I got the impression that Christianity really gained a firm foothold in the Lawa villages in 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 Ban Kong Loi for many years. Don translated the bible into Lawa language. People in Ban 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.

Traditional Lawa house in Ban Pa Pae
Traditional Lawa house
Mountains and hills in the morning fog Lawa Hill Tribe
Scenery on the way from Mae La Noi to Ban La Up

Anthropological research in Lawa communities

Peter Kunstadter in Ban Pa Pae

American anthropologist Peter Kunstadter 6 lived in the Lawa village Ban Pa Pae for seven months in the years 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 Ban Pa Pae with his wife Sally. He also appears in the footnotes of his colleague anthropologist Charles Keyes, who was based in Mae Sariang.

Man with cameras with villagers Lawa Hill Tribe
Peter Kunstadter in Ban Pa Pae, January 1968

Charles Keyes walks to Ban 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, Ban Dong and Ban Pa Pae. On January 10 he walked to Ban Dong with a group of teachers, monks “hanger-on” to attend the celebration of the opening of the Ban Dong School 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 Ban Dong and Ban 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.

Four Lawa people looking at old pictures
Lawa people looking at old pictures in Ban Pa Pae

Traditional dress of the Lawa Hill Tribe

In Ban Dong and Ban La Up you will see some women wear the traditional dress. 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. Ban Dong has a nice weaving center where they make nice textiles. The village also has a small Lawa museum.

Elderly woman weaving
Lawa woman weaving in Ban Dong, Mae Hong Son province.
Exhibits in a museum Lawa Hill Tribe
Ban Dong Lawa Museum

Popular Lawa Hill Tribe villages

Ban Dong

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

Ban Pa Pae

Very few tourists venture out to this rather remote area. The scenery is spectacular. You can reach Ban Pa Pae from the road no. from Hot to Mae Sariang. The road is good. In Ban 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 elderly women wear traditional dress in the village. Some of the women are outstanding weavers. There are Homestays at Ban Pa Pae.

Ban La Up

Ban 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 a number of homestays. It is a popular destination for Thai tourists in the cold season.

woman making silver jewellery
Lawa Silversmith in Ban La Up

Lawa Hill Tribes in Green Trails Tours

At the moment Green Trails doesn’t offer any tours that include Lawa villages. Our sister brand Chiang Mai a la Carte offers The Journey to Doi Inthanon and Mae Sariang. This trip includes visits to Lawa villages. Green Trails can offer the same itinerary for the same price.

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

  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 a number of 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