Hill Tribes in Thailand: The Main Tribes – Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Mien & Paduang

There are reckoned to be 20 tribes all living along the border with Burma (Myanmar) and in the hills and mountains of northern Thailand, but only a few of these have the high visibility of, say, the Akha and Hmong. Among the most famous tribes are the aforementioned Akha and Hmong, the Karen and Paduang, but there are also lesser-known tribes like the Lahu, the Lisu, and the Mien. Following is a short description of the different tribes and how to recognize them by their dress.


The costume of the Akha consists of basic plain indigo died top which is adorned with coins, beads, shells, etc. The men dress in the ubiquitous black pajamas but sometimes add some silverware and a knitted hat as decoration. On top of the basic black with beads, the women wear heavy, ornate headdresses adorned with silver. Said to have the richest oral tradition, the Akha originated in Tibet and Burma. With a population of approximately 50,000, they have resisted assimilation into mainstream Thai life.


The second-largest hill tribe group of approximately 125,000, the Hmong are sub-divided into White Hmong and Green Hmong. Known for their intricate embroidery work, they wear heavily embroidered, tightly pleated skirts. The men dress in baggy black trousers with flashes of embroidery on the cuffs. Originally from Yunnan, China, the Hmong tribe is also found in Vietnam.


Numbering approximately 300,000, the Karen is the largest of the minority groups and originally came from Burma (Myanmar). There are pockets of Christianity among the tribes but as with all hill tribes – and most Thais – animism plays a large part in their lives. Dress is V-neck tunics and turbans and the unmarried girls always wear long white V-neck tunics. Most visitors will meet the Red Karen (Kayah), the other two sub-groups are the White Karen (Sgaw) and the Black Karen (Pgo).


The Lahu are found mostly around the Burmese border and the women are often to be seen in the town of Mai Sai waiting to be photographed in their distinctive red and black jackets and skirts – for money of course. The men dress in baggy green or blue trousers. There are sub-groups among this 75,000 population, namely the Black Lahu, White Lahu, Yellow Lahu, and Red Lahu. Excellent hunters, they originally came from Yunnan, China, and Burma.


The men are considered the sartorial peacocks of the tribes and wear multi-colored flamboyant clothes at all times. The Lisu women wear brightly colored tunics over long pants and many of the older generations wear tasseled turbans on their heads. They are extremely musical and are often called on to provide the music at festivals and celebrations. Originally from Yunnan and Tibet, their population today is approximately 28,000.


Often confused with the Akha, the women wear long black jackets adorned with red pom-pom trim. Skilled embroiderers and silversmiths, they are linguistic relatives of the Hmong tribe and originated in Central China.


Often just called the “long-necks” the Paduang are a sub-group of the Burmese Shan. They live in the Northwest of Thailand and in the Shan states of Burma and speak a dialect similar to Thai. The women beautify themselves by adding brass rings to their necks and legs – hence the ‘long necks’. Most of them live in camps and they do not have the freedom to move around very freely. They exist by selling their handiwork to the many tourists who visit the camps, by charging admission to the camp, and by charging for permission to photograph.