The Hill Tribes Of Thailand

by isvolunteers on Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Participants on the ISV Program in Thailand have the opportunity to help hill tribe communities in the north through our community development volunteer projects. But who exactly are hill tribe people and how do they differ from one another?

ISV volunteers hiking through the country of Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Hemming)

The origins of hill tribe people can be traced back to China, where over the years they migrated to countries such Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.  Most hill tribes are located in remote upland areas, and villagers usually practice subsistence agriculture (self-sufficiency farming in which farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their families). The six major tribes in Thailand are the Karen, the H’mong, the Yao, the Akha, the Lisu and the Lahu, each with its own distinctive culture, religion, language and art.

Akha tribeswoman wearing traditional dress

Akha women in traditional dress. (c) ISV

AKHA: The Akha villagers usually live in bamboo houses raised on low wooden stilts in hilly areas. They are expert farmers who work with mountain rice, corn, and soybeans that are planted seasonally. Akha religion is a form of animism – they believe in the presence of good and bad spirits in non-human entities (such as animals, plants etc). The tribe is easily recognized by the black caps covered with silver coins worn by the female villagers.

H’MONG: This is the second largest hill tribe group, and is sometimes referred to as Meo. They are largely animistic and known for their intricate embroidery. The H’mong spiritual beliefs are influenced by the Chinese – they worship their ancestors, nature spirits and are led by a shaman. Alters can usually be found in every H’mong home.

Lisu tribe at one of ISV community development project in Thailand

The Lisu tribe on one of ISV’s community development volunteer projects. (c) ISV

LISU: Lisu villages are usually built close to water for easy access to washing and drinking. Their homes are built on the ground and have dirt floors and bamboo walls, however, an increasing number of more affluent Lisu are building houses from wood or even concrete. Most Lisu still practice a religion that is part animistic and part ancestor worship. The most important rituals are performed by shamans.

KAREN: This is the largest of the hill tribe groups. The Karen people tend to settle in foothills and live in bamboo houses raised on stilts. Underneath live their domestic animals, such as pigs, chickens and buffaloes. Karen women are skilled in sewing and dyeing, and dress in white blouse-sarong combinations with colorful patterns.

YAO: The Yao (Mien) prefer to live among low hills close to dense forest. Their beliefs are closely tied to Chinese culture, and the sacred Taoist-origin script texts (handed down from their ancestors) are written in Chinese. The Mien dialect is highly tonal and is closely related to Mandarin Chinese. It’s estimated that there are approximately 30,000 Mien people in Thailand.

Everyone loves bubblewrap!

“Despite the cultural differences between groups, it’s important to remember that hill tribe people are still people – just like you and me.” (Photo courtesy of Ryan Verhegge)

LAHU: The Lahu settlements are usually remote due to their strong commitment to the maintenance of the Lahu way of life. Since Lahu means “hunter”, the Lahu villagers (Mussur) pride themselves on their skills in hunting and trapping. They are also famous for their knowledge of herbal medicine. There are around 60,000 Lahu currently living in Thailand.

Despite the cultural differences between groups, it’s important to remember that hill tribe people are still people – just like you and me. There’s so many things we all have in common, and can relate to each other in various ways.

Whether you’re visiting a hill tribe community on an ISV volunteer project, or as part of the Adventure Tour, villagers enjoy your company as much as you enjoy being with them. However, here’s some important information about etiquette and cultural respect to consider before your visit:

  • Dress modestly. Mountain people are often offended by revealing shirts and shorts.
  • Do not make open displays of affection toward your partner or others.
  • Keep your voice low, and smile a lot at the villagers, nodding your head slightly.
  • Do not enter a mountain person’s house unless invited to do so.
  • Do not take photographs without first asking permission.
  • Try to learn a few words of the mountain people languages you are visiting.

We wish all our volunteers an culturally rich, educational, fun and life-changing experience abroad this May to September season. Click here to learn more about ISV’s volunteer projects and adventure tour in Thailand and find out more about the hill tribe people of Thailand through the links below:

Apply here for our May to September Program in Thailand.


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