Meet Thailand’s Colorful Hill Tribes

Chiang Mai’s markets pulse with life. Crowds jostle through roadside stalls filled with exotic goods. Shoppers haggle with traders above the din of traffic. Here in bustling northern Thailand, visitors are able to meet Thailand’s colorful hill tribes.

THAILAND’S 65 million inhabitants include people from 23 minority ethnic groups referred to as hill tribes. Most of those tribes live in northern Thailand, a region of mountains, rivers, and fertile valleys, stretching out into Myanmar and Laos.

The majority of Thailand’s hill tribes arrived there within the past 200 years. The Karen, the largest of the six major tribes, came from Myanmar. The Lahu, Lisu, and Akha arrived from Yunnan, in China’s southwest highlands. And the Hmong and Mien came from central China. *

The tribes migrated largely to escape wars, social pressures, and competition for fertile land. * Northern Thailand proved to be an ideal refuge, as it was remote, mountainous, and mostly uninhabited. And Thailand allowed the immigrants to stay. Soon hill-tribe villages dotted the landscape, with different tribes settling side by side and forming a mosaic of cultures and languages.

Distinctive Dress and Colorful Customs

Each hill tribe can be identified by its distinctive dress. Akha women, for example, wear elaborate silver headdresses, which resemble elegant towers draped with tassels, embroidery, and coins. Some of their other  head coverings look like helmets made of mail, or metal pieces, decorated with gleaming buttons, beads, and balls. Mien women look striking in their ornately embroidered trousers, which may take up to five years to make. Stylish turbans, ankle-length tunics with red ruff collars, and indigo sashes complete their glamorous outfits.

In their full regalia, hill-tribe women wear an array of silver ornaments that jingle and sparkle, announcing their status and wealth to admiring onlookers and potential suitors. Other fashion accessories may feature glass, wood, and yarn.

Most highlanders take pride in their traditional customs. Karen teenagers, for example, dress up more for funerals than for any other event. The reason? Scores of teens turn out for these events, hoping to meet their future spouse. After sunset, the young​—male and female—​join hands, slowly circle the deceased, and sing traditional love songs throughout the night.

Hmong teens court while playing a special game at the New Year’s festival. Boys and girls who may be romantically attracted pair off, facing each other in lines several paces apart. Then a boy and a girl toss a soft cloth ball back and forth to each other. When one drops the ball​—deliberately or by accident—​he or she forfeits a small ornament to the other person. Later in the evening, these items can be redeemed in exchange for a song. If the singing is good, it may attract quite a crowd, besides improving a young person’s prospects of winning a heart.

Coping With Change

In earlier times most hill tribes practiced slash-and-burn farming, felling virgin forest to plant crops and raise livestock. This practice caused serious environmental problems. But now the people manage the land more responsibly, with beneficial results.

Living as they do in the Golden Triangle​—an area that includes parts of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar—​many hill tribes used to grow opium. Nowadays, though, they grow coffee, vegetables, fruit, and flowers, thanks to crop-substitution programs sponsored by the Thai royal family and international aid agencies. Many highlanders also sell goods, services, and traditional handicrafts to the growing tourist trade.

 Nevertheless, poverty, poor sanitation, and illiteracy make life a struggle for many. Other negatives include declining natural resources, cultural change, racial prejudice, and drug and alcohol abuse. The ancestors of the hill tribes fled to Thailand to escape similar problems. But where can refuge be found today?

A Reliable Refuge

Many highlanders have found the best refuge of all​—the true God, Jehovah. At Psalm 34:8, the Bible states: “Taste and see that Jehovah is good, O you people; happy is the able-bodied man that takes refuge in him.” Jawlay, a member of the Lahu tribe, relates: “By the time I was married at 19 years of age, I was a drunkard and drug addict. Without drugs, I couldn’t work, and without work, I had no money. My wife, Anothai, felt abandoned and unloved. We argued constantly.

“After our daughter, Suphawadee, was born, Anothai began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I, though, would run into the forest whenever the Witnesses came to our home. Soon, however, my wife’s conduct began changing for the better. She spoke to me respectfully and was more attentive to her household duties. So when she encouraged me to study the Bible, I agreed.

“As Bible teachings touched my heart, I gradually made progress. Finally, with God’s help, I conquered my addictions. Now my family is truly happy, for we have found the best way of life! We also delight in sharing the Bible’s wholesome teachings with other hill-tribe people.”

Jawlay’s words call to mind a prophecy in the Bible book of Revelation, which states that during the final days of the present wicked world, “everlasting good news” would be declared to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.” (Revelation 14:6) Jehovah’s Witnesses count it a privilege to share in that work, which confirms God’s love for all people, including Thailand’s colorful hill tribes.​—John 3:16.


^ par. 4 Tribes may have several names. In different countries, for example, the Mien are called the Lu Mien, Mian, Yao, Dao, Zao, or Man.

^ par. 5 Large numbers of hill-tribe people still live in China, as well as in Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. In more recent times, sizable immigrant communities of hill-tribe people have developed in Australia, France, the United States, and other countries.

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Many Kayan women take personal adornment to extraordinary lengths by wearing up to 15 inches [38 cm] of glittering brass coils around their neck. * The process starts when girls are about five years of age. Every few years the coils are replaced with longer, heavier ones until, as adults, the women wear up to 25 rings weighing nearly 30 pounds [13 kg]! Contrary to appearances, their necks do not stretch. Rather, the coils push down on the collarbone and compress the rib cage.


^ par. 25 The Kayan came to Thailand from Myanmar, where some 50,000 still live. There they are called Padaung, meaning “Long Necks.”

[Credit Line]

Hilltribe Museum, Chiang Mai

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The Lisu and Hmong tribes both have legends about a great flood. In one Hmong legend, the “Lord of the Sky” warns two brothers that a flood will soon engulf the earth. He instructs the violent older brother to build an iron boat and the gentle younger brother to build a wooden boat. He then tells the latter to take his sister, as well as a male and female of each animal species and two seeds from every type of plant, aboard the wooden vessel.

When the flood comes, the iron boat sinks, but the wooden boat floats. A rainbow-shaped dragon then dries the earth. Finally, the younger brother marries his sister, and their descendants repopulate the earth. Note the similarities between this legend and the accurately documented account recorded in the Holy Bible in Genesis chapters 6 through 10.

[Picture on page 16, 17]

Hill-tribe women in full regalia

[Credit Line]

Hilltribe Museum, Chiang Mai

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Jawlay with his family

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Both pictures: Hilltribe Museum, Chiang Mai