allaboutpai.com Hilltribes

The Hill Tribes of Pai and Northern Thailand, by Thomas Kasper

Here's some information about the hill tribes found around Pai and in Northern Thailand, written by local historian Thomas Kasper, excerpted with permission from his local guidebook The Paioneer. You can purchase his book at shops all over Pai. During the high season, you can generally find Thomas himself at Pai Corner Restaurant.

This page is part of allaboutpai.com, which has lots of information about Pai, a town in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

While excerpting Thomas's book, I have made extensive edits for spelling, grammar, and diction. Any errors introduced in this process are my responsibility.

I wish to note that Thomas does not sell hill tribe tours, or get money from anyone who does.

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Table of Contents

The Hill Tribes of Pai, Mae Hong Son and the North

Since the late 1980s, Pai has become increasingly popular amongst a growing number of tourists and travelers from all over the world for its unique combination of mild climates, natural beauty and the kindness of its inhabitants. The first thing that attracted travelers to Pai was the chance to go on an organized trek leading to some of the still-remote tribal villages situated in the mountains around Pai. A trek from Pai still promises an unspoiled experience of those tribes' traditional lifestyles, since there's still no roads leading many of these settlements in the middle of nowhere, making such a trek a tough hike through the forests.

Northern Thailand today is home to numerous picturesque mountain tribes originating from the region of southern China but believed to have come there from Tibet a long time ago. They entered Thailand via Burma and Laos only in the last hundred years, except for the Karen, who had already established their first settlements in Thailand in the 18th century. These hill tribes' migration is mainly due to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. There's hardly any record available of their true origins and the developments that finally brought them here because none of their languages had a written form. The spoken forms of their languages are distinct not only from tribe to tribe but also within the tribes between their different clans. So we determine their geographic origins by tracking their languages, which are mostly of Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman origin. Not only do the hill tribes have different languages, but they have distinct sets of animist beliefs, they practice different religious rites, and they show different hierarchical structures within tribe, village and family.

The most visible signs of distinction are their traditional ways of dressing and their architectural styles, which are peculiar for each tribe and sub-clan. The main tribes (in demographic terms) in Northern Thailand are Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong, Akha and Yao, with many smaller tribes as well. Of these, only Karen, Lisu and Lahu are represented in the city of Pai. There are some Hmong and long-necked Karen ("Padaung") settlements in the area around Mae Hong Son. For all the tribes living in Thailand, the village itself is the highest level of organizational structure.

Traditionally, most of the hill tribes pursue animist beliefs: everything in the "real" world has its spiritual counterpart in the ghost world. Mostly, a ghost isn't good or bad by its nature, but can be one or the other depending on human action. Interestingly, some of the tribes also believe in a spirit superior to the others.

Due to these beliefs, many tribal villages will, even to this day, have their own shaman. The spiritual leader's duty is to protect the village and its inhabitants from all kinds of misery, to heal diseases and to ensure a rich harvest and the good will of the spirits concerning all other affairs of the tribe. In some cases, especially in Karen communities, the shaman also functions as the headman of the village in secular matters.

There is intense missionary activity in this area of Thailand, and at first glance it would appear that many hill tribe villages have converted to Christianity. However, upon closer examination it seems like most of these villages have mixed the Christian teachings with their traditional beliefs.

Thailand has mainly applied its Buddhist principle of tolerance in its policy towards the hill tribes, leaving them to pursue their own culture, religion and lifestyle while only expecting them to respect the political and legal authority of their host country.

Ban Bang Paek Lisu Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Ban Bang Paek Lisu Village
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Tribal villagers here traditionally made their living out of farming and hunting. They would leave a place behind after exploiting its natural resources in search for the next one. The nomads used to burn down whole swathes of the forest in order to prepare new land for their homes and fields. This nomadic lifestyle can no longer be sustained in today's Thailand due to the scarcity of land and natural resources, and the legal protection of the forest and wildlife. Their hunting habits have also caused a range of Northern Thailand species (monkeys, for example) to become endangered or extinct. Some of the tribes have also been involved in the cultivation of the region's most infamous cash crop—opium.

To help close the economic gap between the tribes and the rest of Thai society, and to break the tribes' dependence on opium cultivation, the present King of Thailand in the late 1950s invented the "Royal Development Project for the Hill Tribes." The project has proved very effective so far, and has earned praise from international organizations such as the UN. Today, only a minor part of the opium grown in the region stems from Thai soil. The project focuses on teaching the tribes about the cultivation of other cash crops like cabbage and fruits, and some more eco-friendly methods of agriculture than their traditional ones, enabling them to keep farming the same fields by adopting modern farming techniques like crop rotation. The Royal Project also improved education in the tribal villages by establishing primary schools there, and sped up tribal integration into the country's economic system by improving the local infrastructure (for example, providing roads and electricity). Since the project began, the gap in income and educational opportunities between the hill tribes and the rest of Thailand's population hasn't disappeared, but it has become significantly smaller.

Today's younger tribal generation usually speaks, reads and writes the Thai language and has access to basic education. Also, the problem of statelessness is slowly disappearing thanks to the efforts of the Thai government to provide official registration services for babies and school children. The older tribespeople still often cannot speak Thai and many times have difficulties acquiring Thai citizenship due to a lack of documents proving their origin in Thailand. Being stateless means having no access to travel (even within Thailand), education, or job opportunities.

On the following pages, The Paioneer will introduce you to the most important tribes of Northern Thailand with focus on the tribes to be found in Pai area.

The Karen (Thai: "Kariang")

Ban Mae Ping Karen Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Ban Mae Ping Karen Village
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The Karen, here represented by four major sub-clans, have established settlements in Thailand since the 18th century. They number an estimated 280,000, making them Thailand's main tribal group in demographic terms. They are less nomadic than most of their tribal colleagues and traditionally show a highly developed environmental and social consciousness.

The Karen women are famous for their weaving skills, the men said to be great artisans and craftsmen. They are also praised for their skills in raising, keeping and training elephants. The Karen live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which they keep their domestic animals. The Karen prefer the lower parts of the mountains, at about 500m above sea level, for their settlements. Their clothes and handicrafts are uniquely skilled and they welcome visitors with great politeness and hospitality, making a visit to a Karen village worth the trip. You can still see Karen people wear their traditional outfits (unmarried women dress different from married ones!) in their villages or on the way to the market, but today most of the hill tribe people, especially the younger generation, have switched to western outfit standards like jeans and T-shirts. The only Karen village easily accessible from Pai by road is Ban Mae Ping, located about 10km from Pai on the road to Chiang Mai on the right hand side. To find Karen villages more remote and thereby more preserved, one has to go on a trek.

The Lahu (Thai: "Muser")

Ban Jabo Lahu Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Ban Jabo Lahu Village
Click here if image does not load automatically.

The Lahu population in the mountains of Northern Thailand is estimated about 60,000 strong and is composed of 5 major sub-clans. They entered Thailand near the end of the 19th century, establishing villages with houses built on high stilts, with bamboo walls, wooden plank floors and grass-thatched roofs, leaving the basement corral for their domestic animals like chickens, pigs and buffalos. The women have a reputation as skilled weavers of cloth, while men and women alike produce Thailand's finest baskets. The men also craft crossbows, musical instruments and other items made of wood, bamboo and rattan and take pride in their skills in hunting and trapping. In the dry season, the men would often stay in the forests for several days for that purpose.

Agriculture traditionally focused on vegetables, but for decades, Lahu villages welcomed opium poppy cultivation as an opportunity to improve their economic conditions. During the last two decades, due to legal restrictions and the introduction of alternative crops, the cultivation of opium has been greatly reduced.

The Lahu believe in a supreme spirit superior to the other spirits. Kinship and clan don't play a major role in their society and the decisive power usually stays with the village headman or the village elders. Decisions concerning the village aim at meeting general consensus. It is quite common for Lahu people to move between villages, because, within the tribe, they consider each other to be brothers and sisters.

Ban Payang Lahu Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Ban Payang Lahu Village
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Two Lahu villages are easily accessible by road from Pai: Ban Jabo, just before Mo Pang Waterfall, and Ban Payang (turn right before the big white school-building on the road to Mo Pang Waterfall and just follow the road for another 4 km). As with the Karen and other tribal villages, you'll have to join a serious trek to get to more remote Lahu villages.

The Lisu (Thai: "Lisor")

The two sub-clans of the Lisu tribe are spread over all of Northern Thailand, where they arrived only in the beginning of the 20th century. There are about 25,000 of them living in Thailand today. They are culturally closely related to the Chinese, with whom they share the New-Year's date. New Year is celebrated for many days, making it the Lisu tribe's biggest annual festivity. It has become popular amongst tourists to visit their villages during the New-Year's celebration to watch the women dancing around the village in different locations, wearing their brightest costumes for the event. The Lisu prefer altitudes above 1000m for their villages, where they live in houses built on the ground with a dirt floor. Traditionally, they make a living from agriculture and keeping livestock around the house. The Lisu are believed to have depended on the cultivation of opium for generations, but recently have mainly switched to other crops like corn and vegetables, as well as developing considerable skills in producing different kinds of handicrafts. As with every hill tribe, the Lisu have their legends. The Lisu believe themselves to be the only tribe to survive a global flood.

Lisu woman preparing the garlic seed in front of her house: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lisu woman preparing the garlic seed in front of her house
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Family is highly valued in Lisu communities. Family lines are carried by the male members of the tribe. The oldest man in the family has the highest authority concerning important matters. If there's a marriage in a Lisu village, there always has to be a dowry paid for the bride. Lisu men and women alike are often recognized as Thailand's physically most attractive people and, unlike with most other tribes, marriage outside the tribe is quite common. The Lisu women stand out amongst others through their highly colorful and picturesque dresses, which most of them still wear both inside and outside of their villages, making them easier to recognize than other tribal people who have switched to western clothing styles. The Lisu villages around Pai are Ban Nam Hu, about 5 km from downtown Pai on the road past Pai Hospital, which they share half-half with a KMT Chinese community, and Ban Pang Paek, about 14 km from Pai on the left side of the highway to Mae Hong Son. As with the other tribes, many more remote Lisu villages can be visited by doing a trek.

Other tribes (Meo, Akha, Paduang, Yao, Lua, Mlabri, ...)

There are many more tribes to explore in Northern Thailand.

The second biggest tribe is the Hmong (Thai: "Meo"), with an estimated population of 125,000.

Then there's the Akha (est. pop. 50,000) who, despite being the poorest and hardest to integrate of the tribes, are seemingly very attractive for tourists to visit because of their very peculiar looks and lifestyle.

The Mlabri tribe is not a hill tribe but lives in the forest of the lowlands around Phrae, where they were discovered by the outside world only some years ago.

The Lua (or Lawa) tribe was the dominant ethnic group populating the area of modern-day Thailand some 2,000 years ago, but it has been widely assimilated into the Thai society, at least as concerns the visible signs of their tribal identity. Their villages therefore don't make much of a tourist attraction.

The Yao (est. pop. 30,000), who came from China via Laos more than a hundred years ago and mainly inhabit the region around Phayao, are said to be very sophisticated people. Many of them are capable of writing Chinese, which is used for the compilation of ancestral and medicinal books.

The long-necked Karen ("Paduang") make a great tourist attraction because of their tradition of "beautifying" selected women of the tribe by adding brass rings to their necks, a tradition that probably only survives due to tourist demand. The rings make their necks look prolonged, when in fact it's their collarbone that is displaced. There are no native long-necked Karen living in Thailand, but close to Mae Hong Son they "enjoy" refugee status in two villages, which have been moved from the Burmese to the Thai side of the border for the purpose of attracting tourists to Mae Hong Son. The people in these villages have suspended agricultural activities and other traditional forms of making a living, depending solely on the sale of products and photographs sold to visiting tourists and their share of the entrance fee to their villages. However, their villages attract hundreds of tourists daily during the season, so there's supposedly something worth seeing there.

The tribes are increasingly integrating into Thai society, as this is the only way they can participate in the Thai economy. The keys to both integration and participation are education and infrastructure. There are significant differences between tribal villages with easy access to both and others which are still rather remote. Of course, the remoteness of many tribal villages is what preserves their distinct culture and traditions and makes them attractive for tourists to visit. So we might regret the somehow inevitable loss of their cultural distinctiveness while we'll have to agree on their basic human right to participate in the social and economical opportunities offered by a relatively developed environment. In the end, as with all other people in the world, it will be up to them how much of their cultural inheritance they might consider worth keeping. For the time being, a trek to some of those villages still hidden in the mountainous forests and only accessible by footpaths (which tend to disappear during the rainy season) still promises a unique experience.

Don't be afraid that your trek will have a negative impact on the tribal villages by spoiling or disturbing the virginity of their culture. Please just show politeness towards the people you will encounter and respect for what and who they are: people like us, only at another stage of development, who will remind us of things that we have long forgotten. Experiencing their traditional lifestyle can remind us it might be well worth the effort to try to remember some of our own cultural roots. It isn't trekking that brings the rest of the world closer to the tribes, it's human civilization itself that keeps spreading all over the globe and wants to reach even the most remote places on earth. This is the development that has brought tourism to a place like Pai in the first place. The financial rewards gained by the villagers through commercial treks are welcomed and needed by the villagers. And keep in mind: You can't stop the world from turning.

Copyright

Text and images from Thomas's article are copyright 2006 Thomas Kasper.

Shameless Plugs

The following shameless plugs are from Chris Pirazzi, the creator of allaboutpai.com, not Thomas Kasper:

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