The History & Culture of The Hill Tribes People of Northern Thailand

By | November 20, 2013

Hill Tribes Northern Thailand

The generalized understanding of the word Hill Tribe relates to a group of people, usually closely related & typically migrants of another country, that live in the hills or mountains.The Hill tribe people of Northern Thailand can trace their origins from the southern Sino-Tibetan geographical area.

Although in total there are up to 15 different tribes located around the north of Thailand,but the five main ones are: Karen ,Akha , Lisu ,Hmong Lahu .Each tribe is divided into clans or sub-groups, which have their own distinct customs, rituals, clothing & languages with common linguistic roots.

With the exception of the Karen ,the remaining groups of hill tribes did not start moving into the hills of Northern Thailand in large numbers until the 20th century.

Some of the largest migrations did not take place until after the political upheavals triggered by the communist and socialist revolutions of China, Burma and Laos.

Living in remote upland areas, the hill tribes were left to practice subsistence agriculture relatively undisturbed until the 1950’s, then their increasing numbers, their poverty and the threat of insurgency encouraged the government to exert greater control.

The National Committee for the Hill Tribes was formed in 1959 to “integrate the hill people into Thai society, while allowing them to preserve their culture”. The government began an extensive primary school programme in upland areas,however, the slash and burn Swidden techniques of shifting cultivation used by the hill tribes to grow food crops and Opium Poppies increasingly conflicted with national efforts to preserve watersheds against deforestation and to curb drug production.

To address these problems, Royal Projects and both government and international aid development projects began promoting cash crops such as coffee, red kidney beans, potatoes and cabbages. The programmes have been very successful in bringing hill tribe villages into the cash economy and in reducing Opium Production .

Other areas where the hill tribe people have been promoted is through tourism trips, trekking & through the development & sales of tourist souvenirs & decorative hand made Silver Jewelry  items.

The success has led to the loss of the traditional way of life, however,the tribes have increasingly had to abandon shifting cultivation in favor of rotational cropping and permanent field systems.

In addition they have often had to relocate from their preferred habitats in high areas near primary watersheds. Increased contact with the commercial culture of the lowlands and with Buddhist and Christian missionaries has brought many changes.

Many tribal people are abandoning their customs based on their beliefs in the spirit world and the annual agricultural cycles and are moving to the cities & towns & becoming part of “urban” Thailand !.