Hill Tribes - Northern Thailand
The mountainous/valley areas of Northern Thailand, in particular up along the Border with Burma (Chiang Rai), are full of ethnic hill tribes, nearly all of which have their origins in China.
The six major tribes found in Thailand are the Hmong , the Karen , the Yao , the Akha , the Lahu and the Lisu , and each of these tribes is distinguishable by its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress.
On the whole they are extremely
placid and honest.
The main occupation of hill tribes, not surprisingly, is farming, traditionally by way of slash and burn technique. But over the last ten to fifteen years, the Thai government has implemented a number of programs to educate them about more sustainable farming methods. Be aware that opium, once the main income of hill tribes in the golden triangle, has been all but eradicated.
Over the years hill tribes have been given something of a raw deal by Thai governments, who in general have always considered them a nuisance. But ever since they became a major tourist attraction in the early '90s, things have changed. Nowadays they are entitled to Thai citizenship, social welfare and even government business loans.
News of these improved conditions has spread through the tribal grapevine, which means that many hill tribe groups from Laos, Burma and China – three countries with a history of victimizing minorities – have made the cross-border journey to settle in north Thailand, in particular around the Chiang Rai area. In fact the mountainous province of Chiang Rai is said to have the highest population growth in all Thailand.
Even now in 2005, hill tribes in the more remote areas of Thailand live just as they did a hundred years ago. However, as modern-day Thai society – fashion, pop music, baseball caps, and perhaps the worst TV in the world – edges its way closer, how long these ethnic minorities can retain their cultural integrity remains unclear.
Nowadays many of the younger tribe members prefer to wear western clothes, in particular hill tribes located around Chiang Mai.
Note: When visiting hill tribes it is considered polite, but not necessary, to bring some sort of simple gift. Sweets and cigarettes, although appreciated, are not really suitable.
Some alternatives would be basic medical supplies, antiseptic, mild painkillers, fruit, sewing supplies and foreign coins. Pencils and notebooks are also very useful for the kids.
Having said that, your friendliness, sincerity and goodwill are perhaps the most precious gifts you can offer.