The tribes of the north live in the region between Pai and Chiang Rai and the Myanmar border. These minority ethnic groups have remote Sino-Tibetans origins even though most of the inhabitants emigrated to Thailand in the 20th century, fleeing the conflicts in China, Myanmar and Laos.
The Hill Tribesare made up of various ethnic groups, each one with its own language, traditions and social organisation. They live on the mountain slopes and in the jungle of northern Thailand, near the Myanmar border.
Especially attached to their culture, most likely because of the isolation they were subject to in the past, the women of the tribes are characterised by their bright clothes. Animists for the most part, certain groups were nevertheless converted to Christianity by the missionaries, which often meant the loss of certain traditions. This is the case with the Karen tribe, Thailand's biggest and one of the first to be established in the north of the country.
The mountain tribe known as Padaung, or "with the long neck", is known for its folklore. Starting at a young age, the women in it wear spiral necklaces intended to lengthen this part of the body which is considered to be a mark of beauty (although certain associations denounce this particularly painful practice).
The tribes are among the poorest of the population; for a long time they meagrely subsisted by cultivating opium, once the main activity of the Golden Triangle. The Thai government has been firmly fighting against this illicit activity, which feeds drug trafficking, for many years. Thus, opium cultivation has practically been wiped out in the northern mountains, at least in the most accessible and visible zones. For their subsistence, the Thai government encourages the tribes to cultivate vegetables, fruit and coffee, as the Royal Project for the Hill Tribes has stated since 1969. Moreover, in the villages and at the Chiang Rai market, the women sell tourists artisanal objects like bags, fabrics and silver jewellery (typical handicrafts from the Karen tribe).
But compared to the other ethnic groups, the integration of the tribes of the North remains superficial. Although the youth speak Thai and a few words of English, thanks to globalisation, the older ones essentially speak their native language or the Thai dialect of the north. Small tourist buses take Westerners on a discovery of the main villages as part of organised tours with stops at the small markets, set up for the occasion. For these tribes, the handicraft trade is but a meagre resource that should not be underestimated, but for tourists, who become snap-happy when they see the women in their traditional dress and the generously smiling faces of the little ones, it is unfortunately all they get to experience of their cultural wealth.
The ethnic group of the Hmong, one of the tribes of the north, recently drew the attention of the international press when, in 2009, the Thai government refused the claims for refugee status of more than 4000 Hmong immigrants. Living in refugee camps for more than 30 years, the Hmong were taken back to Laos by the army, where the ethnic group claims to have been a victim of violent persecution for many years.
The women of the Lisu tribe can be recognised by their brightly coloured attire.© Veronica Maiella
Most of the villages in Northern Thailand are not accessible from the main roads.© Veronica Maiella
Chinese refugees from the Yunnan province now call northern Thailand home.© Veronica Maiella
The Lisu tribe can mostly be found near Chiang Rai.© Veronica Maiella
The Akha tribe was originally from Mongolia, and settled in northern Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century.© Veronica Maiella