The northern part of Thailand is the mountainous area outlined by several mountain ranges. Amid these mighty mountains, lives several hill tribes with distinctive origin such as Myanmar, Laos and China. Chiang Mai as the travelers' hub of northern Thailand, is the best beginning place for your hill tribe visit plan. It is already suggested that these people would be living on the hills. So you should be ready for a moderate amount of walking and trekking. Without further ado, let me lay out the list of Hill Tribes you could and should be visiting in Chiang Mai.
The Hmong a.k.a 'Independent People' has migrated to Thailand from South China over a hundred years ago. Their number in Thailand is only second to the Karen Tribe. You can notice them by their black velvet clothing with elegant decoration, mostly pink and red fabric strapping around their waist. A popular place to visit and get a glimpse of the Hmong is Doi Pui. The Hmong village on Doi Pui is a little touristy and not much to say about authenticity. Yet, It is still a great destination for those who want to have a soft hill tribe experience.
A recommended Hmong Experience would be staying overnight at the Hmong Hill Tribe Lodge. This accommodation offer an immersive hill tribe stay. Most employees in this hotel is Hmong people and the hotel is located right below the their Village. There are shows and demonstration to get you to know better about Hmong culture and tradition. A soft trek village visit is also available in the morning.
Do you know that?
For the Hmong, it is normal for a man to marry several women. I have approach the Hmong ladies, and modestly asked their opinion about this tradition. Gentlemen, it is true. However, it is an old tradition and modernization has done its job well. Many said they would not allow/tolerate their men having anyone else.
Coming from Southern China, the Akha moved to Thailand using two different routes. Some traveled from Kengtung, Myanmar and the others traveled directly through the Myanmar borders by the Mekong river. This group of people is very common in Northern Thailand. Recognizing them by the way they dress is almost impossible as there are as much as 8 subgroup of the Akha tribe, which dress and speak differently.
A great place to visit the authentic Akha Tribe would be Chiang Rai, another beautiful city not far from Chiang Mai, famed for its elegant White Temple. Huay Kee Lek Village is a well-known Akha villages that accepts Travelers.
Do you know that?
The Aka is very serious about getting a son as he will become their heir who will take on their family name. If the wife of the Akha family is unable to deliver a boy child, there is a need for the man to remarry with another woman in order the produce a heir for the family.
Found in many provinces in northern Thailand including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Like most hill tribes, the Lahu worships Spirits. Every Village has a "Tobo", a religion leader who is responsible for communicating with Gods and Spirits. Today, there is an increasing number of Lahu people who embraces a religion such as Buddhism, Catholic or Christian. The Lahu has a very distinctive clothing. They uses black, blue and sometimes red fabrics. Unfortunately, it is quite rare to sight the Lahu in their tribal clothing. Most have switched to the more comfortable modern clothing.
A great place to learn and lives with the Lahu is in Chiang Mai. Doi Pu Muen's Lahu Village is the authentic and fascinating. You will learn about their proud story about defending Thailand against the communists. And How the King inspired them to change from Opium plantation into the tea plantation. I would recommend staying with them on the hill, tasting their local dishes that even most Thai locals have yet to get a taste of. Those who wish to stay at better and more comfortable accommodation, at the foot of the village hill, there is a good hotel called Phumanee Lahu. Doi Pu Muen is a must-see and it would top our recommendation anytime.
Do you know that?
Lahu people has intimate relationship at a very young age (according to Asian's standard) and would not marry someone from the same village. Every wedding and divorce need to sacrifice a pig to the spirits in the village square. Surprisingly, a divorce is common for the Lahu. If the Lady's parent grow to dislike their Son-in-Law, they will force their daughter to divorce. If you value the life of your pet pig, do not bring him there as we don't know how often they divorce.
Unlike the other mentioned Hill Tribes that come from China, the Kachin origin is from Myanmar. The Kachin has found their home in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son province. They wear black clothing with small silver balls as decoration on the chest. The Kachin people worships their ancestors and the guardian spirit, but some of them have switched to Christian. Most of their religious ceremony now take place in the Church.
Traveling to a Kachin Village is still off the map of most travelers. Why? Because it never existed. There were no physical information on where the Kachin Village is, or if they accepts travelers. Fortunately, a Kachin village recently has opens up for travelers like yourself. In Chiang Dao, a district of Chiang Mai, Ban Mai Samakkee has seen the importance and the potential of community-based tourism and opened up their village for travelers.
Do you know that?
The marriage of the Kachin take place during their time off from farming and planting. The man will present the bride's family with dowry. If the man could not effort to give dowry to the bride's family, he will need to work for them for 7 years. After 7 years, the bride's family will provide him with some land to make his living. Unlike the Lahu where the man needs to remarry to get a heir, the Kachin bride who failed to deliver a boy child will need to find a mistress for her husband to have her produce a heir for the family.
The most common and well-known hill tribe in Thailand, the Karen. They are said to be the largest hill tribe is South East Asia. They call themselves 'Paka-Kyaw' and dislike being called Karen or Kariang. They are found in many Thailand provinces not only in northern but central Thailand as well. Most of the Karen do agriculture such as farming and plantation. They worship ancestors and spirits.
There are no designated nor popular destination for a Karen Village visit. Due to their large number of population, they are not considered exotic like the others hill tribe. You can expect to see them anywhere in your journey in Chiang Mai.
The Kayan Lawi is a subgroup of the Red Karen. Their uniqueness that amaze everyone is their very very long neck, so some called them 'the Giraffe Women'. From all the Karen subgroup, they are the most famous thanks to their unique traits. They use the large shiny rings to wrap around their neck making it look longer. It is known that the Kayan Lawi girls start wearing the rings at a young age of five and slowly increase the number as years passes. However, modern ladies refuses to continue this tradition. Both young and middle age Kayan Lawi has started taking off their rings. It takes time for their neck and shoulder to recover from a long restrain. The Myanmar government encourage the ring removal. Soon we can expect that this old tradition will become history.
No one wants to stay the same forever
We know and understand that everyone wants to see whats presented in the media such as documentaries, books or website just like ours. But as time progresses, it is normal for people to choose a better and more comfortable way of life. Like us, these people too would like to wear comfortable clothing, work in air-conditioned offices, and sleep in a comfy beds watching Netflix saying goodbye to their days of dirt and sweat. Many travelers seeks authenticity without understanding or embracing this logic. Disregarding that they too are just like us, humans. Thank you to everyone who have read until this section. I wish you a great and happy Thailand experience. It would be great if you can share it with me too!
In Chiang Mai, there is a certain village built to accommodate the Hill tribes. Here you will find almost every hill tribe mentioned and those that are not too. This place is called Baan Tong Luang. Although the village itself is not an authentic hill tribe village , it is a great place for casual travelers who wants a hill tribe experience. The villagers there are authentic and very nice to travelers, some can even speak English too (in order to sell you souvenirs, of course)