There are a total of 6 main hill tribes that are indigenous to the hills of northern Thailand. These hill tribes have migrated to Thailand from neighbouring Burma, Laos, Vietnam and even China at various points throughout history.
Hill tribes can broadly be divided into two types: lowland and highland dwellers. The hill tribe people who live in the low valleys tend to be agriculturalists growing rice and corn. Tribes that live in the high altitudes of the mountains have traditionally relied on poppy cultivation for the production of opium to survive.
The Karen Hill Tribe of northern Thailand
There are a total of 250,000 Karen people living inside the borders of Thailand. The Karen, however, is a much bigger tribe in Burma where they number up to 4 million. The Karen are believed to be the most assimiliated of the hill tries into mainstream Thai society and as such it’s often difficult to tell them apart from other ordinary Thais. The Karen tribe are by and large Buddhists; however, there has been a steady increase in conversions to Christianity in recent years due to missionary activities.
The Hmong Hill Tribe of northern Thailand
This tribe, also known as the Meo, are nomads who have communities present across South East Asia as well as China. There are believed to be a total of 65,000 Hmong living in Thailand, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Phetchaban. There are about four million Hmong living in southern China and this tribe has strong cultural similarities with Chinese people. Apart from the cultivation of opium, the Hmong hill tribe are renowned animal breeders who produce good quality ponies.
The Akha Hill Tribe of Northern Thailand
This tribe is also known as the Kaw. Ancestoral lineage plays a particularly important role among the Akha, many of whom are able to state their lineage back 1,000 years. The Akha migrated to northern Thailand from Burma at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Lahu Hill Tribe of Northern Thailand
The Lahu are also known as the Mussur. There are about 40,000 Lahu living in the highlands around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The Language of the Lahu which is called Lahu Na serves as a lingua franca between other tribes. The Lahu are renowned musicians and are particularly known for playing the flute.
The Mien Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand
There are believed to be about 30,000 Mien living in Thailand. The Mien, also known as the Yao are mainly found in Chiang Rai, Phayao and Lampeng provinces. Originally from China there are many Taoist elements incorporated into their religious belief system.
The Lisu Hill Tribe of Northern Thailand
The Lisu are originally from Burma and came to Chiang Rai province in the 1920’s. The Lisu intermarry regularly with the Lahu hill tribe of northern Thailand.