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I have always been captivated by nomadic cultures, human migration and movement of peoples. From ancient times to modern times, ethnic groups such as the Romas of Eastern Europe, the Masai of East Africa, or the herders of Western Tibet, to mention a few, have all developed distinct cultural believes and survival skills that one can learn from. Therefore, I did a trekking trip up in Northern Thailand close to the Burmese and Laotian border to see the enigmatic Hill Tribes. It was amazing!

There are 7 major hill tribes and over 70 ethnic groups each with a distinct language and culture in Thailand. They live in secluded mountainous regions with densely forested hills and lush jungle valleys.  Absolutely beautiful landscapes! Many of these ethnic tribes are direct decedents of nomadic peoples who migrated from Tibet 📿 via Yunnan and Burma many centuries ago. They wear beautiful colorful ethnic clothing and speak Tibeto-Burman languages, the non-Sinitic members of the Sino-Tibetan language family.

Their primary economy for centuries was the cultivation of opium, which contrary to popular belief originates from the Mediterranean region and not China.  Since its prohibition in the early 20th century, however, these hill tribes were forced into major agricultural changes with significant economic impact. Today many of them rely on rice, corn and banana production, which generates much lower income than opium.

We trekked through Akha, Lahu, Yun, Lisu villages and visited the Karen (long neck) village the previous day.  We ate lunch prepared in the jungle (see time-lapse below) with eco-friendly utensils including bamboo chopsticks, bamboo cups, banana-leaf soup bowls, and even banana engagement rings.  All these tools were made right in front of us by our skillful local guides. The food was cooked the traditional way inside bamboo sticks on the fire with Akha music playing in the background, sooo tribal!

We asked curiously our trekking guide Ayoo, who belongs to the Akha hill tribe, various intelligent, some silly and lots of funny questions about tribal life. My hands-down favorite question was asked by Zack from New York: “Does your tribe have a basketball team? 🏀 #LOL We all exploded in long loud laughter, but the answer was even more amusing: “Yes!” #touchè


Kayan (long-neck) woman with brass coil

Kayan (long-neck) girl with brass coil

Kayaw (big-ears) woman

Native crafts

Kayan (long-neck) woman without coil

Kayan mother and child with brass coils

Tommy — our tribal guide! 🙂

Landscape in hill tribe lands

Hill tribe village

Hill tribe house

Rustic life

Lotsa de chickens

Tribal lunch time

Soup in banana leaves #soooEco

Meals are prepared in bamboo

Bamboo cup and chopsticks

Banana ring


Trekking in Hill Tribe lands


UN tribal lunch in the jungle


Trekking group #sweaty

2 comments on “Hill Tribes

  1. Rainie Jiang says:

    I didn’t know about these ethnic groups in Thailand! I always assumed there was just one ethnic group in those southeastern neighboring countries to China – how narrowminded!

    What is the symbolism of “long-neck”? I think beauty is one. Any religious meaning too?

    Was it easy to find a touring group with a local guide like the one you were a member of?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Attenbôv says:

      Travel is learning every day indeed! I believe anthropologists are still debating the origins of the long-neck coils. Various theories exist including: for beauty and desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism; to scare away and prevent enslavement by other tribes; to resemble a dragon, which is an important figure in Kayan folklore; etc. A few local operators organize trekking, enjoy!


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