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Northern Thailand's well-known hilltribes are the nomadic ethnic minorities originating from Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and southern China who are now scattered in remote villages throughout the lush but rugged, mountainous terrain in Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai provinces in northern Thailand. The area is aptly called the Golden Triangle because three borders meet in a triangle there - the borders of Burma (now Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand. Its the stronghold of mainland Asia's last ethnic minorities - the hilltribes. This is where most of the tribal groups are concentrated.
One thing is certain about the history of all the hilltribes - they were forced to migrate in order to survive. These ethnic minorities became hill tribes because for centuries they have had to retreat in the face of stronger lowland peoples. Although the rugged hills of the Golden Triangle are beautiful enough on trekking holidays, they are nobody's first choice for a home. The land is poor for farming and the terrain difficult. But leading an unsettled life in the forested hills, always at risk of having to move further on, has been the only way of keeping their cultural identity, something all the hilltribes feel very strongly about.
Actually, they are relative newcomers to northern Thailand as the main migration didn't start until the beginning of this century, the Karen, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha arriving from Burma, the Hmong and Yao from Laos.
Although there are only six main hilltribes, there are 20 or more subgroups which can be distinguished by their different costumes and dialects. Each has managed to retain their own languages, cuisine, customs, mode of dress, and spiritual beliefs, at least so far. Hilltribe trekking in the north has become one of Thailand's major attractions for tourists who are looking for more than just a beach holiday in southern Thailand. Unfortunately, the increased popularity in hilltribe trekking is starting to transform what was once a unique, intimate cultural excursion into a tourist-packed parade that often turns the hilltribe people into glorified zoo exhibits & curiosities, especially with large tourist groups. Small groups, like ours, are much better.
Until recently, Thailand was the only country where it was possible for travelers to visit hilltribe villages, and is still the only country without travel restrictions. As a result, the six principal tribes who have settled in Thailand are by far the best known. Their ethnic diversity and highly distinctive cultures makes them some of the most intriguing and appealing minorities anywhere in the world. Although that world has drastically progressed and changed around them, including in Thailand, hut life in the more remote hilltribe villages has changed very little over the years.
The village economies of all the hilltribes owe more to the land and the climate than to any cultural differences, and everyday life follows much the same pattern from settlement to settlement. The rituals vary greatly, as does dress, but the communities must all support themselves with hill-rice, domesticated animals and whatever they can glean from the fast-disappearing forests. Fields have to be cleared on the hill-sides, rice pounded in the morning, pigs fed and roofs re-thatched.
Their problems are also similar in that they are all running out of the means of survival. There are no more hills and no more forests to which they can move. Over the centuries the tribes have migrated to avoid wars, conscription into armies and political unrest in general. Gradually, they have moved farther and farther along the ridges. Now, in Thailand, they have reached the end. They have nowhere else to go.
Tourism's increasingly important role is not necessarily all harmful. In the past, Thai officials have often been irritated by the influx of peoples who are were considered illegal immigrants, and were puzzled to know how to deal with them. But now that tourism is booming, the hilltribes have become well-known internationally and are actually a main tourist asset, albeit a commodity, to Thailand. Of course, it is mainly the tourist industry that benefits financially, rather than the hilltribe communities who have a greater need for the money, but at least the new awareness of hilltribe culture has helped encourage the Thai authorities to take a more positive attitude. With luck, and economic support from their final adopted country, the hilltribes of Thailand may yet find a niche that allows them the right to education, citizenship and a livelihood from farming without losing their cultural identity. This link leads to an interesting article on this very topic: http://www.ipsnews.net/mekong/stories/hilltribes.html
There's lots of information available about the hilltribes of Thailand on the internet, these are some of the better sites I've found:
This one on dress: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Congress/7905/hillsty1.htm
article published 11/10/2005