Hilltribes of Northern Thailand

This document still under construction...

In the mountains of Northern Thailand there are several major divisions of mountain tribes. Each major tribe division has a very unique culture, religion, language, dress, etc. The major groups are: Kariang, Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Yao. Other groups include yellow tree spirit people which have dwindling numbers around 150 left. Among the non-Thais in Northern Thailand are also the descendants of the KMT soldiers


Loi Mi Akha

The Akha hilltribes are most prevalent in the Mountains of Myanmar (Burma). However several groups have migrated to the most Northern areas of Thailand. Especially between Mai Salong, Chang Rai area. They speak a language that is in the Tibeto-Burman family. Their religion is sort of an animist-ancesteral religion. They are easily identifiable by their silver headdress which the women always wear, even when they are sleeping. Their clothing is unique which is typically black with red highlights. They usually have a multicolored stitched pattern that span horizontally consisting of triangles diamonds or squares.

There are three main akha groups. They can be distinguished by the women's head dress and other things...


I brought along a copy of Lonely Planets Thai Hill Tribes phrasebook, and another which I can't remember the name of but will have to look up. The LP phrase book was next to useless when talking with the U Lo. Obviously it was the wrong dialect because the words were not even close to what I was read. However, the other one (???) was pretty close. I'll look it up and update this paragraph later....

Useful phrases

Bargaining Tips

Akha's are some of the fiercest bargainers in the area. If one doesn't except an offer I found it often to be the case that the akha would feignt being very upset and unwelcome. As soon as the bargaining was over, no matter how it turned out, things returned to very friendly terms. If one doesn't speak Akha, It's difficult bargaining with the Loi Mi, as it's rare to find one that speaks any English. Also, some of the Loi Mi I met didn't understand arabic numerals, so if you don't know your Burmese numeral script or know how to speak numbers in Ahka or Burmese, you may be in for a difficult bargain session. I found myself showing Thai bills to indicate an offer. Also, much of the merchandise they sell is hand made or are personal items that have a personal value which may or may not be the market value. Bargaining at what one would think is the market prices may often be below the minimum a person will part with. As usual, If another is selling the same thing, you may want to shop around.


The Lisu women are easily distinguished by their bright clothes. They wear solid colors (usually bright blue, red, or yellow), with multi-colored layered trim. They are spread out throughout Northern Thailand, Eastern Myanmar and China. In Northern Thailand I found some villages between Phrao and Wiang Papao, and around Pai. Also, I met some Lisu in the market area of Chang Mai.


The Padaung are considered a subgroup of the Kariang. However, they typically do not understand the language of the three other major Kariang groups. The Padaung are located in the mountains along the East side of Myanmar (Burma). As of January '94 there were two refugee tribes that had migrated into Northern Thailand. One of them is situated about 5km NW of Mai Hong Song along the border. This tribe is accessible by dirt road. The other is only by boat. They are most famous for their long necked women.

The woman wear brass rings which stretch their necks out because in their culture they consider a long neck very beautiful. What actually happens is their rib cage becomes compressed giving the illusion of a longer neck. They never take off the rings. As a result their neck muscles atrophy to the point were they can no longer hold their head up with out the rings. Rumor has it that a husband will remove his wifes rings if he finds his wife cheating on him. National Geographics ran an article on the Padaung a while back. Sorry, I don't have the date or issue number.

Hmong (Meo):

The Hmong are famous for their needle work. I haven't scanned in any pictures yet. I found some Hmong culture related info:

Yao (Mien):

The yao always wear dark navy blue clothes. The women always have a bright red fluffy trim on the shirt that resembles a Hawaiian leigh. They are also serious cross stitch people. Sometimes they can spend 2 years covering a pair of baggy pants with cross stitch. When they are done, they usually sell for around US$100.00. Hand labor is pretty cheap! Most of the yao I met were pretty used to tourists. The hung out in touristy spots. Several of them usually spoke English. A couple villages I ran had a row of tourist stalls for selling touristy trinkets. Yao's are excellent capitalists.

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Dave Thompson