The hill tribe villages near Chiang Mai give a unique and fascinating look at a simpler way of life. The hills and mountains around the northern part of Thailand are home to many tiny villages, often with fewer than 20 households and so remote that they remain unmarked on many maps. These villages are home to a number of different and distinct tribes, each with their own unique histories and cultures, though all are noted for their friendliness.
While some of the following Chiang Mai hill tribes are very popular tourist attractions, it is important to remember that they are still human beings, not animals in a zoo. You will get infinitely more out a visit to any of these villages if you take the time to sit and talk to the people there, rather than just taking a photo, buying a souvenir and calling it a day.
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Hmong TribeDoi Pui Village
The history of the Hmong is something of a mystery, though they probably originated from Tibet. They are a fiercely independent people and are quite widely spread around Asia and, thanks to their involvement in the Vietnam War, also in parts of the US. They arrived in Thailand around the end of the 1800s, where the two main subgroups are the Black Hmong and the White Hmong. You can tell the two apart by their traditional clothing, with the Black Hmong women favouring dark blue and white knee-length skirts. The White Hmong women wear long, baggy dark blue trousers and a long-sleeved jacket with embroidered collar flaps. Men in both groups wear black or dark blue collarless jackets with fancy fronts. With villages on Doi Pui and Doi Suthep, right next to Chiang Mai, this is the tribe which most visitors are familiar with, though some say that their village has become too much of a tourist trap. Read More...
- Opening Hours: 08:30 – 16:15 (ticket booth open 08:30 – 11:30, 13:00 – 15:30)
- Location: Doi Pui Mountain, about 24.5 km west of Chiang Mai Old City
Karen Long Neck TribePadaung Village
The Karen are easily the most famous of the hill tribes in Thailand. Thought to have originated in Tibet, they lived in Myanmar for centuries before starting to migrate into Thailand in the 18th century. They are very distinctive for their elongated necks. Strictly speaking, their necks are not actually longer, but their torsos are shorter, having been compressed by the heavy brass rings they wear, making their necks look longer. The tribeswomen have a reputation for being expert weavers and wood-carvers while the men are noted for their environmentally friendly farming practices. The women also wear the most distinctive traditional clothes: a v-neck tunic and a turban. The tunics of unmarried women are longer and are always white. Read More...
- Location: Chiang Dao, about 75 km north of Chiang Mai
Lahu TribeHuey Naam Rin Village
The Lahu hill tribe came from the Tibetan plateau and gradually moved across China to northern Thailand, probably in the late-1800s. There are now around 60,000 of them around Chiangrai and Chiangmai provinces. Their traditional clothes are very colourful, with long jackets and baggy trousers in green, blue, pink and red. Somehow, despite their colourful attire, they have a reputation as excellent hunters, as well as being among the most gender-equitable societies in the world.
- Location: South of Thaweesin, Chiangrai Province, about 78 km northeast of Chiang Mai
Lisu TribeNong Tong Village
The Lisu hill tribe seem to have a serious case of wanderlust. Having originated in southwest China, they can now also be found in India, Myanmar and Thailand, particularly around Fang, Mae Hong Son, Phayao, Lampang and Chiang Rai. Lisu villages can generally be found close to water as the Lisu believe that water has a special power (beyond simple hydration and cleaning). Similarly, each village has a roofed pavilion, which houses the village guardian spirit shrine and which women are forbidden to enter. The Lisu traditional dress is very vibrant for women, consisting of a bright blue or green apron-like tunic warn over long trousers, with some of the older generations still wearing a tasselled turban. The men, by contrast, usually wear sober colours.
- Location: West of Pai, about 130 km northwest of Chiang Mai
Palong TribeNor Lae Village
The Palong hill tribe came to Thailand from the Shan State and Southern Kachin State of Myanmar in 1984. They apparently decided they didn’t want to move too far into the Land of Smiles because most of their villages are still concentrated around the border, with the main one being Nor Lae Village (sometimes written as No Lae Village). The Palong people are divided into three groups with differing cultures and languages. There are around 2,000 in Thailand, all of the Silver Palong group. Palong cultural clothes feature a brightly coloured jacket, similar to a bolero, and a red skirt-like longyi with thin white stripes. They are most noted for growing tantep – a large leaf used to wrap Burmese cigars.
- Location: On the Thai-Burmese Border, north of Doi Ang Khang Mountain, about 175 km from Chiang Mai
Akha TribeHuay Kee Lek Village
The Akha hill tribespeople have spread from Yunnan in China to Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and, of course, Thailand. Those in Thailand arrived early in the 1900s from Myanmar, establishing villages in what was the Mae Salong (now Santikhiri) area of Chiangrai province. In stark contrast to the Lahu tribe, Akha society is heavily gender-segregated, with men and women living in separate huts on opposite sides of the village. The Akha are said to be expert farmers and skilled hunters, though they sadly favour slash-and-burn farming and are known to sometimes hunt endangered animals. The most remarkable feature of their traditional dress is the elaborate metal headdress, with different shapes denoting the two main Akha subgroups in Thailand.
- Location: Santikhiri, Chiangrai Province, about 236 km northeast of Chiang Mai