Exploring Hill-tribes in Northern Thailand; Impressions, thoughts, & stories PART 1

Over the past two weeks I have been lucky enough to visit and stay with 5 different hill-tribes.  There were two main motivations for these visits; 1) One village is a potential place for volunteers to live and teach English and 2) A co-worker is leading a tour in August to take groups to learn about hill-tribe shamans and basics about hill-tribe culture, and I will be co-leading on that trip.

Lua traditional attire

Before I start on my short stories and impressions I want to lay some basic groundwork about hill-tribes in Northern Thailand.  “There are seven broad hill tribe groupings: Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Mien, and Padaung. However, within these categories, there are sub-categories and clans that further divide the groups.”[1]  Estimates including sub-categories are around 12 different hill-tribes in Thailand.  Some migrated from China while others have roots within Thailand.  Each hill-tribe has a distinct culture, language, and traditional dress.  Majority of hill-tribe people are farmers and for the most part live off the land.  The traditional dresses are known for their bright colors and unique designs.  Over the two-week span I visited Karen, Lahu, Lisu hill-tribes, and spent extended time in a Lawa village (Northern Thai language Lawa is called ‘Lua’).

As beautiful as their traditional dresses, language, and culture are there are many hardships that hill-tribe people face.  Three major problems are trafficking, obtaining citizenship, and discrimination.  The UNESCO Bangkok newsletter from 2008 hits it right on the head, “Lack of citizenship is the single greatest risk factor for a hill tribe girl or women in Thailand to be trafficked or otherwise exploited, according to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research.”[2]   Being from a hill-tribe very often brings discrimination and many Thai people believe they are in a lower class.  With those three problems outlined, plus lack of a good education, it mixes into a problematic situation and an uphill battle.  It is not all bad news though; progress has been made.  The Royal Project Foundation, which taught and assisted farmers to switch from growing opium to vegetable’s and coffee, to many great organizations that have built schools, modern facilities, and help with education. (http://www.samsara-foundation.com/ & http://hilltribeinthecity.org/ are two great examples)

The ‘older’ sister and her family where we had a delicious dinner

With that information I wanted to share a few moments from the two weeks that made a lasting impression on myself.  The first is a story I was told over dinner at the Lawa village.  This is the village where my girlfriend was born and raised and where her family lives.  She has two older sisters and they are twins.  I jokingly asked which sister is older and her answer knocked my socks off.*  The sister I asked is technically younger as she was the last one to come out of the womb.  However, in Lawa culture they believe the sister who came second is the older because she had the foresight to let her sister come first as she wanted to take care of her.  I was absolutely blown away and was very impressed at that outlook and level of compassion.  What started as a cute question to make conversation turned into something I won’t forget for a long time.

*It matters in Thai society b/c they address people as either “pee + their name” or “nong + their name”. Pee means they’re older and nong means they’re younger.  Example, I am younger than the Thai teacher at school so he addresses me as ‘nong David’

Stay tuned for part 2 which includes reflections on community and fun with village whiskey!

David Poppe



[1] “Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand – Thai Hilltribes – 1stop Chiang Mai.” http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/. Web. 12 Feb. 2012. <http://www.1stopchiangmai.com/culture/hill_tribes&gt;.

[2] “Stories Are Retold. Songs Are Repeated. But Problems Remain.” UNESCO Bangkok Newsletter 13. http://www.unescobkk.org/. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.


One thought on “Exploring Hill-tribes in Northern Thailand; Impressions, thoughts, & stories PART 1

  1. Pingback: Wat Doi Saket Project – Exploring Hill-tribes in Northern Thailand; Impressions, thoughts, & stories PART 2 | ATMA SEVA

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