The Thai population is just over 65 million. Thailand is a reasonably developed country with big cities and a good infrastructure. The capital, Bangkok is far and away the largest city in the country with a population of over 10 million. It is also the only city in Thailand with a population in the millions. Chiang Mai is the second largest city with 155,000 inhabitants. About 75% of Thai people are ethnic Thai, 11% have Chinese ancestry and the remainder belong to different minority groups (e.g. Indians, Malaysians).
Many diverse mountain tribes live in the North and West. These are the least accepted and integrated of the different Thai ethnic groups. Every tribe has its own language, customs, style of dress and spiritual beliefs. Most of the tribes are semi-nomadic and have settled in Thailand over the last 200 years, coming from places such as Tibet, Myanmar and China. Other groups have lived for much longer in Thailand. The mountain tribes in the North form a very interesting and popular tourist attraction.
Thai mountain tribes: The Karen (aka Yang or Kariang) are originally from Myanmar and are the largest of the minority groups, with a head-count of 322,000. Religions amongst the Karen include Buddhism, Christianity and Animism. Many Karen still come to Thailand from Myanmar to this day, to flee the Burmese military regime. There are four distinct groups within them, the White Karen, the Pwo Karen, the Black Karen (Pa-O) and the Red Karen. These names indicate the dominant colour of their traditional dress. They are accomplished silversmiths and their weaving and embroidery is of beautiful quality. They use the so-called ikat technique, where the yarn is dyed in particular colours before weaving. The dye used for this are made of exclusively natural ingredients and are a fiercely guarded secret in the villages.
The Yao (or Mien) are also wizards with silver and embroidery. The women wear black coats and trousers decorated with elegant needlework and red fur-like collars. On their heads they wear large blue or black turbans. During festivities the Yao wear silver jewellery. Their settlements are usually situated near mountain springs at a height of between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. The houses are built out of bamboo and the roofs almost reach down to the ground. The floor is left uncovered, except in sleeping areas. They farm rice, corn and opium. The Yao have their origins in central China and they still use Chinese symbols in their written language. The worship of their ancestors is deeply rooted in their religious beliefs, and they worship sacred objects and spirits. Medicine is a foreign concept to them; births, sickness and deaths are attended by the witch doctor who performs sacred chants and rituals. The Yao have a liberal attitude when it comes to sex. Young people are free to have sex openly, and marriage is not a pre-requisite. Women may go from one man to the other, and be welcomed by parents of both partners. Illegitimate children are welcomed into the family bosom without judgement. Traditional weddings do take place here, however, and a dowry must be paid by the groom to the bride’s family. Around 40,000 Yao live in Thailand, spread across about 100 villages which are mainly situated in the Chiang Rai area.
The Meo (Hmong, Miao or Maew) are Animists. They have roots in south China and are the second most numerous tribe in Thailand, with around 124,000 people spread across around 150 villages. They usually live in mountainous regions and plateaus above 3,000 feet. There are black, striped and flowery Meo, once again distinguished by the main colour/design of their clothes. The three groups all speak the same language and get on well with each other. Their clothing consists of simple black coats, wide black or indigo trousers with striped borders, or indigo skirts. They also wear a lot of jewellery. The women mostly wear their hair tied back. They are also famous for their silverwork and weaving. A noticeable characteristic of the Meo is their hollow silver bracelets, of which they often wear three at least. They are, without exaggeration, geniuses with a needle and thread. Anyone who lays eyes on their embroidery work immediately has the urge to buy it. Meo women perform most manual work and also hunt wildlife for food, while the men relax in the village, many of them smoking opium. Polygamy is practised here, and their attitudes towards sex are comparable to the Yao. The Meo farm rice, corn and opium.
The Lahu (Musoe) originally descend from Tibet and the Chinese province of Yunnan. 73,000 Lahu live in approximately 160 villages, mainly in the triangle formed by Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mee Hong Son. Their bamboo houses are simple and consist of just one room. Six to nine poles bear the weight of the walls and the roof. In the middle is an open fire for cooking and warmth. In contrast to the Meo and the Yao, the Lahu men work long days in the fields, growing the same crops as the Meo and the Yao. The women also help in the fields but are usually busy raising the children. Like the other tribes, the Lahu are adept at weaving and embroidery. For weddings, young girls are expected to make their own and their groom’s clothes. The Lahu men are skilled in creating tools for farming and everyday use. They also make beautiful jewellery. The women of the Lahu wear black and red coats and tight skirts. The men wear wide light green or blue-green trousers. The Lahu also have different groups distinguished by the dominant colour of their clothes, these being red, white, yellow and black. They are famous among visitors for their beautiful multi-coloured shoulder bags. They are Christians and Animists.
The Akha (I-kaw or Igor) descend from the Chinese province of Yunnan and live in houses built on poles throughout Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and South China. The tribe numbers around 48,500 and live throughout 94 villages. Their houses are often built on hills, far from water. To collect water, they must descend from the mountainous regions. Their houses are built in the same way as those of the Yao and Meo, except they have a raised floor made from planks of wood. There is a separate area in every house for men and one for women. The Akha are famous for their pipes, from which they are inseparable, their pointed headgear and a type of robe that they wear over their naked bodies. The necklaces that they wear are flat and heavy, and a large, round, silver disc usually hangs from them. On their headgear they wear clusters of coins. The Akha are also good weavers. They follow Animist beliefs and also worship their ancestors. Every Akha village has a gateway with carved wooden dolls on each side to keep ghosts at bay. The Akha are generally seen as the most primitive of the mountain tribes, they can neither read nor write and show little interest in learning how. They often grow opium for their own consumption.
The Lisu (Lisaw) are a small tribe of around 38,000 people spread across about 80 villages. Their ancestors are Tibetan. They build their houses on hill tops which are surrounded by other hills in order to gain a useful vantage point against any potential enemies. Pig sties, chicken runs and stables are built onto their houses. A noticeable feature of Lisu villages is the network of bamboo water-pipes, often several miles long, which channel water to the villages from faraway sources. The Lisu farm rice, corn and large quantities of poppies, although Lisu men use far less opium than the Meo, where addiction levels are high. The women wear black turbans and long, multi-coloured tunics over their trousers. Heavy silver jewellery completes their look. The men are not outshined with regards to fashion, also wearing multi-coloured clothes and lots of jewellery. Some men wear one earring. The women don’t have it easy in Lisu society and are often treated little better than slaves. Their weddings are cause for broad celebration, but after that the fun ends. They are expected to work hard, mind their own business and not complain. Sex before marriage is normal, as is the freedom to choose one’s own partner.