Opium cultivation was a major source of income for many of the hill tribes and the government worked hard to eradicate this cultivation by successfully substituting it with other cash crops, such as cabbages and fruits. This is known as the Royal project, initiated by his Highness King Rama IX, and commended internationally for its success.
Population: approx 300,000 Origin: Myanmar
This is the largest of the minority groups and many of the Karen were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism or being Buddhist. Within the Karen, there are three main sub-groups: White Karen or Sgaw, Black Karen or Pgo and Red Karen or Kayah. The Karen wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colours and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes - practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest.
Population: approx 124,000 Origin: Yunnan
This is the second-largest hill tribe group and is sometimes referred to as Meo. They are largely animistic and best known for their intricate embroidery. Known to be fiercely independent and with nomadic tendencies, they sided with communist rebels in Thailand in the 1970s, while the Hmong of Laos sided with the US during the Vietnam and Laos wars - both seeking self-determination.
The Hmong are sub-divided into White Hmong and Green Hmong. The Green Hmong are the most numerous in Thailand and women wear heavily embroidered, very tightly pleated skirts. The men wear baggy black pants with various levels of bright embroidery along the cuffs and seams. The Hmong have settled in the province of Chiang Mai and villages can be visited near Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon. Their succession is patrilineal and polygamy is widely practised.
Population: approx 73,000 Origin: Yunnan, Myanmar
Also known as Musor, the Lahu are concentrated near the Burmese border and have five sub-groupings: Red Lahu, Yellow Lahu, Black Lahu, White Lahu and Lahu Sheleh. The Black Lahu is the largest sub-grouping, making up close to 80 per cent of the Lahu population. The women wear very distinctive black and red jackets and skirts and the men wear baggy green or blue pants. They have a reputation as excellent hunters, and survive off vegetable cultivation, with some supplementing this meagre income with opium production.
Population: approx 50,000 Origin: Tibet / Myanmar
The Akha are among the most down-trodden and often most impoverished of the hill tribes, resisting assimilation into mainstream Thai culture. They are, however, the most fascinating and colourful of the hill tribes and can easily be visited, particularly in Chiang Rai province where many reside. Many villages have been converted to Christianity, though some observers decry this as a dilution of their culture.
The Akha have a very unique and rich oral literature tradition, in which they can recite their ancestors back numerous generations. The Akha came to Thailand in the early 20th century, mainly due to their persecution in Burma. The women wear very plain indigo died shirts, which are in turn adorned with all kinds of eye-catching paraphernalia, such as coins, beads, shells, etc. The women are also very visible by their ornate headdress adorned with silver, and many can be seen at the Night Bazaar hawking their intricate silver jewellery. Every year the Akha have a unique swing festival. Opium is still used among this tribe.
Population: approx 40,000 Origin: Central China
Also known as the Yao, they are distant linguistic relatives of the Hmong and originated from China. Because of this, many of the older Mien can still write Chinese, and many display distinctive Chinese facial features. Being the smallest group, the Mien live in isolated villages, mostly in and around Chiang Rai and Nan. The Mien women are known for the long black jackets that are adorned with pom-pom like red trim. They are skilled embroiderers and silversmiths.
Population: approx 28,000 Origin: Tibet / Yunnan
The Lisu women are distinguished by their brightly coloured tunics, worn over long pants; some of the older generation continue to wear tasselled turbans on their heads. Occupying villages above 1,000m, they keep livestock and cultivate corn and vegetables. Unlike other hill tribes, they don't usually live in stilted houses. The Lisu men and women are also recognised as some of the most physically attractive of the hill tribes and marriage outside of their tribe is not uncommon.
Population: marginal Origin: Thailand
The Padaung are a sub-group of the Shan, who aren't entirely considered minorities as they have always occupied the areas of Northwest Thailand and the Shan states of Myanmar. The Shan speak a dialect similar to Thai and are even known as Thai Yai, having been assimilated into Thai culture.
There are pockets of Padaung around Mae Hong Son. The Padaung attract many curious visitors on account of their long-necked women. A tradition of beautifying women by adding brass rings to their necks has been preserved largely for generating tourism. Although the neck appears cruelly elongated, it is the collarbone which has been displaced rather than the stretching and weakening of the neck.