Northern Thailand is home to interesting and colourful ethnic minorities, known as the hill tribes. These add an important element to tourism here and you may visit, or go trekking to, numerous villages where they are happy to receive you. Since most are rural and poor, any economically-uplifting opportunities are welcomed.
Most of the hill tribes have migrated into the region during the past 100 years from the Asian interior and have largely preserved their traditional ways, making them a fascinating cultural study. They prefer living above 1,000m, and shy away from the outside world.
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. Each hill tribe has its own customs, language, dress and spiritual beliefs and this is sometimes true even of the numerous sub-categories within one hill tribe. For example, the Green Hmong and White Hmong speak in different and distinct dialects and dress differently. The hill tribes are most distinctly recognised for their colourful and unique costume, which they continue to wear daily.
Most of the hill tribes living in the remote upland areas practice subsistence farming. They were pretty much left alone until the 1950s, when the increase in their numbers, extreme poverty, statelessness and threat of insurgency forced the government to form a National Committee for Hill Tribes.
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.
However, as is the case with any minority groups, hill tribes have issues with citizenship, conforming to mainstream Thai society and the loss of their indigenous customs and languages. Furthermore, their placement at the centre of the lucrative drug trafficking along the Myanmar border has often put them in compromising positions. These are all difficult issues faced by both the hill tribe people and the Thai government.