Over 100 years ago, the Hilltribe peoples migrated south from China into what are now Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The six major tribes are the Karen (Kariang, Yang), the Hmong (Meo), the Yao (Mien), the Akha (Ekaw), the Lisu (Lisaw), and the Lahu (Mussur). The main profession of all these tribes is farming, and all of them tend to migrate whenever they feel that the soil at their present location is becoming depleted.
Each tribe is district, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress. With Thailand undergoing rapid modern development, it is difficult yet to say whether these tribes will continue in there traditional ways of life, or whether they will eventually be absorbed into the surrounding, and ever more-encroaching, Thai society.
Akha (Ekaw) villages are distinguished by their carved wooden gates, presided over by guardian spirits. The Akha live in raised houses, within which one small room is set aside for paying respect to ancestors.
The focal point of community life is the open ground — the “common”, if you will — where the tribe celebrates its major festivals, especially that of the Giant Swing and where young men and women come to meet (under the watchful eye of the elders). This tribe is easily recognized by the black caps covered with silver coins, worn by the women.
The Hmong (Meo) live in houses that sit right on the ground, not on stilts as do most on the other tribes. However, the main floor of their houses is not at ground level, but rests upon a kind of above-ground basement or root cellar that they use for food storage. Moreover, their house-fronts slope outward and downward, an architectural feature that is the trademark of their villages.
The Hmong , even more than the other tribes, practice a strict male-female division of labor. One custom that especially illustrates this is that of giving a newborn boy a gift of metal from which he will one they forge a weapon, whereas newborn girls receive no special gift.
The Hmong are a diligent, patient, and independent people, fond of wearing their silver ornaments during ceremonies and much devoted to the sky spirit they believe has created both the world and their own ancient way of life.
The Lisu (Lisaw) like to settle near the tops of mountains, as close as possible to streams or waterfalls. Their houses never have more than one door and are oriented to stand parallel to the face of the mountain on which they live.
Each village has a spirit house, and each house has a small shrine to spirits an ancestors. In addition, because the Lisu are the “engineers” among the Hilltribes, most of their villages feature a large bamboo pipe, a conduit, that carries to the village water from the nearest source.
The Lisu are a handsome people, perhaps the best-looking of all the tribes, and they like to think of themselves as a cut or two above their other Hilltribe neighbors. Consequently, they are among the least bashful of these ethnic groups, and, although patient, like to be a bit competitive as well.
The Karen (Kariang, Yang) like to settle in foothills, and live in bamboo houses raised on stilts, beneath which live their domestic animals: pigs, chickens, and buffaloes. They, like all the tribes, are skilled farmers who practice crop rotation, and they also hunt for game, with spears and crossbows, and use tame elephants to help them clear land.
Karen women are skilled in sewing and dyeing, and dress in white blouse-sarong combinations with colorful patterns or beads for trim. They wear their long hair tied back in a bun and covered with white scarves.
The Karen are gentle, peaceful, and cooperative people, who, like all the Hilltribes, reserve their highest veneration for their ancestors and living elders.
Since “Lahu”, the name of their tribe, means “hunter”, the Lahu (Mussur) obviously pride themselves on their skills in hunting and trapping. They are also famous for their knowledge of herbal medicine.
The Lahu are an independent people, physically larger than the members of the other tribes, but rather than their greater stature leading to aggressiveness, they love entertainment and the easily life.
Lahu women wear several kinds of distinctive dress, although the men clothe themselves pretty much uniformly. The women wear colorful turbans and like to sport beautiful earrings, usually of silver.
This is another mountain-top tribe with their houses on stilts, and a “basement-corral” for their many domestic animals: chickens, pigs, ducks, and buffaloes.
The Yao (Mien) prefer to live among low hills near dense forest. Their houses also sit on the ground, and feature a space designed for a cooking fire in the center of their main room, as well as a small shrine dedicated to their ancestors and to the guardian spirit they believe to inhabit each individual house.
Their language, long ago derived from Chinese, is written in Chinese Characters, and their paintings, mostly of religious subjects, reflect certain very ancient Chinese artistic styles, although the Yao paintings have a unique flavor of their own, and are coveted by many Western collectors.
The Yao are the “businessmen” among the Hilltribes, and they also excel in the making of metal farm implements such as axes and plows. Because they’ve long had a written language –unlike several of the other tribes, who had no written version of their language prior to the coming into their midst of Christian missionaries — they also know how to make high quality paper.
HILLTRIBE VISITOR ETIQUETTE
It is kind, but not necessary, to give gifts to people you visit. Some suggestions or alternatives to sweets and cigarettes are balloons and other inexpensive toys, cosmetics, medical supplies antiseptic, mild painkillers such as aspirin, food, fruit, clothing, sewing supplies and foreign coins.
Follow the advice of your guide, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Respect the fact that you are a guest visiting the homes and villages of these people. By showing them that your foreigners are genuinely interested in them, your friendliness, sincerity and goodwill are the most precious gifts you can offer.