Chiang Mai: A home to many unique tribes

Chiang Mai is a fun destination for those on a constant search for adventure, but it is also ideal for tourists who seek to learn more about Thai culture.

Karen Tribe, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Visiting picturesque Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand gives you the opportunity to experience the hill tribe villages that reside here. The land is home to many tribes, with the Karen being the dominant (46.18%), followed by the H’Mong (16.32%) and the Lahu (11.21%). Their villages are scattered around the region and visiting them will give you a look into the lives of these mountain people. 

Getting to Chiang Mai is easy

Chiang Mai is one of the easiest cities to travel to. It has its own international airport which is just 10 minutes away from the city center, meaning you can easily reach here by plane if departing from Bangkok or other countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and more. Otherwise, take a long-haul bus if you’re on a shoestring budget.

Buses from all over the region arrive here, from cities such as Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Koh Chang, Sukhothai, Pai, etc, and even from abroad including Luang Prabang and more. The train is another cool and convenient way to explore the stunning landscape along the way. Get a private car if you travel in a big group. For the adventure addicts, rent a motorbike and drive. It is going to be a memorable journey. 

The H’Mong: A diaspora that has spread wide and integrated among various countries

It is not entirely clear where the H’mong hill tribe takes root from. But many have argued that the H’mong ancestors lived in Tibet and China. Given their strong urge to freedom and a craving to be independent of China, the H’mong diaspora started to lead them down South, where they ended up in Chiang Mai, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma by the end of the 19th century.

Hmong mother and daughter Chiang Mai rice field

The H’mong population in Thailand today is estimated at around 150,000 people. A majority of them reside in the provinces of Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and more. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, a big number of H’mong people fled to Vietnam to settle down with the initial H’mong community in Northern Thailand in regions like Sapa, Ha Giang and so on.

Their clothing and patterns tell a story

Four H’mong subgroups have been created based on the colors of their garments, the White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb), Blue or Green Hmong (Hmoob Ntsuab), Striped Hmong  (Hmoob Txaij) and Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub).

In spite of the diversity, the Hmong share commonality regarding traditional tenets that reflect their way of life, the reaction to the supernatural world, rituals, music, and stories. These subtribes are scattered around the region, and many do not have any specific name that is known to outsiders. Doi Pui Hmong Tribal Village is used as a general term.  

Hmong tribe woman

The variation of clothing is the most striking characteristic that distinguishes each H’mong subculture to one another. Each subgroup has their own traditional embroidery, colors, and styles that are passed down through the generations. The H’mong women dip into a reservoir of ancestral embroidery symbols which reflects their perspective and understanding about the surrounding natural world. They then have these symbols done on their textiles, representing their daily life and culture.

The symbols are stylized from familiar images such as mountains, houses, sun, flowers, cucumber seeds, animals, spider webs, fish scales and many more. Each symbol has a different meaning. For example, the sun means life, mountains mean strength, seeds mean abundance. These textiles are worn on a daily basis and are used in plenty of social and ceremonial enactments. All in all, these intricate and colorful patterns serve multiple purposes both functionally and decoratively.

Visiting Doi Pui H’mong tribal village

The majority of H’mong tribe villages are located on Doi Pui, collectively called Doi Pui tribal village. Located within Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, a trip to this area can be combined with a quick visit to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (a pagoda) and some surrounding waterfalls. There are plenty of things to do in the village area. Of course, walking around is a great way to really immerse yourself in the culture. 

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

There is a daily market that encompasses half the village, where numerous shops sell daily goods including fresh and dried foods, textiles, accessories, handicrafts and more. These items are sold for the villagers and also for tourists, at simple prices. The money made goes towards contributing to the community and helping the residents sustain their village life. 

Around Doi Pui H’mong tribal village area you will also come across gardens of vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants that relate to their spiritual and supernatural beliefs. Walk up the top of the village and you will reach Doi Pui Hill Tribe Museum. Here you can learn more about the livelihood of the H’Mong people.

The Karen: seeking a better future

The Karen tribe is the biggest tribe living in northern Thailand, in terms of population. Karen were originally from Myanmar with a tragic past. They had suffered war and violence in their country, resulting in them fleeing to the nearby regions such as Thailand. The Thai government was kind enough to let them stay and gave them land. Even though their life has become much more peacefully since then, they are still lacking in terms of education and health care opportunities.

The Karen tribe is famous for a certain tradition. The Karen women are known for wearing rings around their necks, adding new ones each year, lengthening it. This starts when the girls are around 5 years old and carries on until they are 21. In the end, they are referred to as “dragon ladies.” As a result of this tradition, the Karen villages have become somewhat of a (controversial) tourist destination.

Karen woman, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The easiest village to get to from Chiang Mai is Baan Tong Luang village, where you can visit 5 tribes (including Lahu and H’Mong in addition to the Karen). Some travelers come here only to take photos next to a long neck Karen so they can check it off their bucket list. However we recommend you do not do that, rather, take your time to really get to know them and their lifestyle instead of treating it as a zoo attraction.

Taking a private tour with a local guide is the best way to fully experience it. Chiang Mai Travel Hub is one of the tour operators that offers private tours to this village with very knowledgeable local tour guides accompanying you. With a guide, you can get past the language barriers and interact with the women that will help enhance the experience. You can then gain a deep understanding of their life. Ask them questions about the goods they are selling or the things they do to earn a living. You will find them accommodating and eager to answer your questions – and of course ask a few back! 

You can also shop for some of their tribal craftwork such as embroidery products, batik clothes, etc.,in their market. There are also other attractions in the area you can check out such as Bua Tong Waterfall (Sticky Waterfall) and Prasat Hin Phimai, the largest Khmer temple in Thailand. 

Leave the Lahu for the Last: Another unique way of life

With over 4500 years of history, a visit to the Lahu hill tribe village will give you lots of cultural knowledge hard to gain elsewhere. The Lahu originally lived in Tibet and Southwestern China, and then moved into Thailand, Lao and Vietnam under the pressure of Chinese. Their population in Thailand is now approximately 60,000 and their villages are primarily located in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. 

The Lahu are very strong, independent and diverse. There are no less than 6 sub-groups in Thailand, each speaking a different language. The major Lahu subgroup you will find in Thailand is the Red Lahu. They are known to be the greatest hunters and are well-acquainted with nature. They are also known for their medicinal techniques where they use a mixture of herbs to cure almost any sickness prevalent in their people. Despite the fact that they are an ethnic tribe, they might be one of the most gender-equitable societies in the world. They are very committed to principles of unity and they work together for survival. 

To experience the Lahu, visit Huey Naam Rin village, an off-the-beaten-path Lahu village in Chiang Mai. It is located in the mountains, surrounded by lush green forests, where you will be completely immersed in nature. Houses here are made of wood and bamboo. Chickens, pigs, and dogs stroll freely on muddy paths connecting homes. You will find people doing farming work or practicing the traditional way of making fire. 

Lahu people picking lavendar, Chiang Mai, Thailand

There is a massage school called asokananda located in Huey Naam Rin village if you are interested in learning Thai massage techniques. Being a student here, you are provided with food from the school and accommodation in families in the village during your course. 

To head over to these villages, we’d recommend hiring a local tour guide (a tribesperson if possible). This way you can break through the language barriers. With their guidance, you can explore the region, understand the cultures and lifestyles better, and you will also be able to talk to the locals, and ask them questions about their unique lifestyles. 

By making friends with a local family, you may even get invited for a meal in their household. That is how accommodating they can be. In the same manner, do not treat these beautiful people as tourist attractions, rather treat them with respect. They will welcome your curiosity with open arms.

Posted January 26, 2020
image of blog writer Piumi
Piumi Rajapaksha
Third-culture kid, hailing from Sri Lanka. Currently residing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and refuses to leave because of the good food. You'll probably find her wandering aimlessly through the city with a coffee in hand looking lost, but she never is.
image of blog writer Piumi