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Tribal Groups, Hill Tribes

Chiang Mai Tribal Groups, Hill Tribes

Chiang Mai is the most popular starting point for the many treks and activity trips into the hills surrounding the city. They vary from one day excursions in a 12 seater van to see a village such as a Meo tribe, to 5 or 7 day treks to take in the more remote villages to the north and to the east near the Myanmar border. Hotels and the local TAT office can advise on tour operators:

Tourism Authority of Thailand: 105/1 Chiang Mai-Lamphun Rd, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai 50000
Tel: +66(0) 53 248 604

The tribal groups are : Paduang, Akha, Karen , Hmong/Meo, Lahu, Lisu. Within tribal groups there are sub groups, but these are the main tribes of the region.

Tourism has had an effect, both good and bad on the tribes of the region and some would argue that the dilution of the culture has left the villages purely as tourist attractions.

However that has to be balanced by the fact that the people of these villages 20 years ago were suffering extreme poverty and were very reliant on the production of opium for sale in neighboring countries where it was trafficked to the west.

The regular use of opium was also a concern to Thai authorities. Something had to change.

The Royal Project was initiated to bring that change, partly through reducing the dependency on the opium poppy, by introducing alternative agricultural methods and new crops, and partly by bringing visitors to the ethnic groups of the region.

It’s widely regarded as having been a great success, but there are still foreign tourists who will announce that the villages have become less than genuine because of the visitors numbers.

But then those foreigners have lived their lives in the rich west and not had to deal with the difficult issues facing the people of these hills.

A brief description of the tribes

The largest group in the region, some of the Karen were converted to Christianity, whilst others remain Buddhist.

They have been successful in adapting to the new crop cultivation, with rice production high on their output.

They live in the lower regions of the mountains

The group wear distinctive outfits, not due to textiles or fabrics, but what they are adorned with.

Beads, coins and various odd pieces of silver ‘jewelry’ are part of the outfit.

The Akha people have their own distinctive ways and have been more resistant to the attempts to bring them into the main body of Thai culture.

Meo villages are probably the most visited of all the groups, with lots of one day excursions to see a Meo village.

As such they have been exposed to foreign tourism far more than the remote villages in the mountains

Located near the Myanmar border the group is well known for its hunting prowess.

The style of dress is generally red and black outfits.

Mien/ Yao
Originally from China, the Mien still have a strong association to that country.

Their skills lie in embroidery and silverware, and many Mien write in Chinese script

A small group with numbers of around 30,000 the Lisu have their origins in Tibet and Yunnan.

Their villages are in the higher regions of the area, so its more likely to see a Lisu village on a trek.

Maybe one of the most famous of all the hill tribes, the Paduang are the Long Necked tribe seen on tourist brochures and postcards.

The villages have become almost obligatory on the village itinerary and the women are not shy about having photos taken, with the accompanying request for a donation.

One lady must be as famous as any Thai politician since she has appeared on all kinds of publications.

The Paduang live relatively close to the border with Myanmar and its not unknown for groups to make cross border trips in both directions.

The issues facing the equivalent group in Myanmar is of great concern to their counterparts in Thailand.

For details of the Royal Project: