Northern Thai Hill Tribes

Northern Thailand is home to 7 “hill tribes” – communities that have migrated from China, Tibet and Burma over the last several centuries. The seven tribes comprise people from the Karen (including Padaung), Hmong, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Lawa, and Akha traditions.

There are at least half-million hill tribe peoples in northern Thailand, although these numbers don’t account for recent refugees from Burma. In fact, many hill tribe people are “stateless,” holding no formal citizenship (or any of the rights – voting, healthcare, education—that are granted to Thai citizens).

Tribal Encounter

While hanging out in Chiang Mai, we took some time to visit their villages, meeting four of the tribes. Less than 3 hours from the Burmese border, two tribes lived in refugees camps and two tribes lived in small villages about an hour further north.

Per usual, the hill tribe visit was not what I expected. We did see the famous “long-neck” women of the Padaung tribe and the “big ear” women of the Karen tribe. We met these women at their handicraft shops, where tourists who buy their hand-made goods (weavings / wood carvings) support the village.

In fact, the income made from tourists means that these two tribes don’t need to accept international agency assistance (UN and Red Cross mainly). In fact, our guide pointed out to us several times that they were not poor, since they had electricity and owned refrigerators and TV. I was invited in to an Ahka woman’s house and indeed there were appliances inside (albeit it was a fairly simple wood house on stilts with animals living underneath).

“Selling” Hill Tribe Culture

Traditionally, the hill tribes had been subsistence farmers, but this lifestyle is not longer viable. Lack of farm lands due to development and fewer animals in the surrounding forests have made their former lifestyle obsolete. Also, there two largest income-generating activities — opium growing and teak wood harvesting — are now illegal.

In addition, the use of elephants in the logging industry is being phased out (thankfully), but that means the need for mahouts (elephant trainers and keepers) is also diminished. So in essence, tourism is one of their only ways for hill tribes to make a living.

A Gender Shift

At first, the “selling” of hill tribe culture seems sad. But is it? By setting up tourist kiosks, the communities make more money, do less physical work and have more freedom then they did in the past – particularly for tribal women.

And let’s not romanticize the lifestyle of traditional subsistence farming where women spend most of their time in back-breaking labor gathering wood and water. Now they sit at their individual stores, fully made up posing for pictures and selling shawls. Maybe not ideal, but certainly not terrible.

Interestingly, the male-female work balance has completed shifted in just one generation. Because the women are the ones with the colorful dress and physical enhancements, they are now the ones who earn (and now control) the family’s money. The current generation of hill-tribe men takes care of the children, cook the food and spin the yarn. We witnessed this work dynamic throughout the villages.

So the hill tribes have learned to capitalize on their culture, which in a way is helping to preserve their age-old traditions. The alternative is for the hill tribes to lose their cultures altogether as the young people move to the slums of Bangkok to find jobs, or worse, lose their daughters to sex trade.

Preserving or Manipulating Culture?

What do you think about the hill tribes…Are they “selling out”? Are we tourists exploiting them? Do you have ideas on how the tribes can earn a living in the modern world while preserving their culture?

There are shops in Chiang Mai that support the production of traditional hill tribe handicrafts. These stores boast that they support traditional cultures without exploitation because the hill communities stay in their villages and are not exposed to tourists. Do you think this is true? Or are they the ones exploiting the hill tribes?

Would love to hear your thoughts!

For more info on Thailand’s hill tribes, visit the Virtual Hill Tribe Museum at It’s kinda of a fun site to check out and it’s run by hill tribe people themselves.

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 5th, 2012 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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