Hill Tribes of Chiang Mai – Lisu, Hmong, and Karen in Northern Thailand
The Northern Thailand administrative region is known for its population of native hill tribes which, much like the Native Americans of the United States, are an ethnic minority. They are divided into various tribes and clans, each with its own set of customs and distinct subcultures. The most notable groups are called the Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Paduang, and the Karen. They generally live in remote uphill and mountain lands, where they keep traditional villages and make their living from agriculture: without exception, their areas are rural and for the most part modern conveniences, education and economic opportunities are scant. Unlike the Native Americans, the hill tribes are not generally indigenous to the region but instead immigrated from bordering countries, such as Myanmar, Tibet, Yunnan, and China. The only exception to this is the Paduang, who are native to Thailand. Other tribes have been in the country only for about 100 years. In total, the hill tribes number at 700,000 to 1,000,000, making them anywhere from 1% to 1.47% of the entire population of Thailand (the uncertain numbers are due to difficulties in taking consensus among the hill tribes, many of whom are not registered citizens and who have no social security records or housing records with the government).
In the year 1959, the government formed the National Committee for the Hill-Tribes to assist in the integration of the tribes into Thai culture and society, while emphasizing that their cultures and animistic practices must be retained and preserved; that integration must happen without assimilation. Part of this is caused by their increasing population and the extreme poverty they suffer, as well as their agricultural practices which involve shifting cultivation and their slash-and-burn techniques, both of which threaten the forests and water reserves as well as contributing to drug trafficking, the last of which is illegal in Thailand. Toward curbing this and developing a sustainable economy in which hill tribes can live off the land without damaging it, the Royal Project-an organization founded by the current king to assist farmers and citizens living in rural areas-has sponsored a program to educate hill tribes on more environmentally aware farming practices, as well as providing them with the tools and technology to do so: among others, the Project has developed village roads, irrigation systems, and have made progress in bringing electricity to the mountain villages. This has led to a decrease in the growing of poppies and also assisted the tribes in becoming more prosperous and self-sufficient through the growth of winter crops, coffee beans (see Doi Kham coffee) and many other flora that cannot be sustained on the lowlands and most of Thailand due to the tropical climate. While they continue to suffer from marginalization and exclusion to some extent, the Royal Project has had considerable success in the matter of uplifting and helping them. The government has also initiated a program to establish and staff primary schools in these areas to ensure that hill tribe children are equipped with rudimentary education so that, when or if they do leave their villages for the cities, they will be better able to resist exploitation by unethical employers, and capable of finding jobs that conform to legal standards, including minimum wage and health insurance.
In addition to everything else, many hill tribe villages are now a tourist attraction: while it can be argued that this contributes to harmful exotification and that merchandising them is in many ways dehumanizing, there is an upside to the tourism in that it brings some income to the hill tribes themselves, and this is more than anything a welcome addition. So while you should certainly consider trips from Chiang Mai to visit these villages, it would also be helpful to make sure that you can respect their cultures while you are there and that you can treat them as human beings instead of zoo exhibits. Trips to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, are particularly good as they tend to include multiple hill tribe visits.