There are six main groups of hill dwellers living in northern thailand: the akha, hmong, lisu, Karen, lahu, and Mien. these seminomadic peoples, some 500,000 in total, began to arrive here at the end of the 19th century, pushed out of their native tibet, Myanmar, and China by civil war and political pressures. though widely referred to as hill tribes, this label is rather general as each group has its own heritage, language, religion, and culture. the future of the hill tribes is uncertain. traditionally, most use the slash-andburn method (swiddening) to grow crops, abandoning land once it is exhausted. But competing pressures on land are drawing them into the thai market economy. Many hilltribe teenagers have moved to Chiang Mai to work in or set up craft workshops.
Young Lisu women and girls wear black turbans adorned with multicolored threads, mainly for important celebrations such as New Year. Silver jewelry, sewn onto their clothes, is a display of the family’s wealth.
New Year is the most important date in the Lisu calendar. A tree is planted in front of each house in the village. A shaman and a priest then perform a ritual to cleanse the village of the past year’s bad elements, while young people dance around the trees. In the past, some hill tribes earned extra income from opium production. They are now encouraged to grow “new” crops such as cabbage.
Festivals and Gatherings
Colorful ceremonies mark rites of passage such as birth, death, and marriage. Here, the Akha gather for a festival.
Akha people strive to maintain a traditional way of life, the “Akha Way.” This is proving more difficult as fertile land disappears and animal numbers are depleted. Here, a villager carries out the vital chore of collecting wood.
While many Lahu women no longer wear traditional dress on a daily basis, they still weave distinctive shoulder bags (yam) from brightly colored fabrics.
Mien clothing is particularly distinctive. Women embroider colorful patterns onto black or indigo cloth and stitch red pompons onto caps worn by children.
Karen typically build houses in lowland valleys, cultivating by crop rotation rather than slash-and-burn. They are the largest and least nomadic tribe.