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Thailand - The Hilltribes of North Thailand

Thailand might be famous for its massage parlours, its varied cuisine, its exotic beaches, its shrines and its people, but if you head up North and go just outside the cities of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son you will experience a completely different world. There you will find the hilltribes of Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Hmong and Yao. More than 100 years ago they have migrated to Northern Thailand and neighboring regions from Nepal, Burma and Southern China in search for a better future.


Each tribe is unique, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress. The main occupation of all these tribes is supposed to be farming, but modern day tourism and the benefits from rich western tourists is gaining on. Young children quickly learn the basic English words, like “money” and swiftly approach tourists trying to gain an extra few Euros and Dollars. The parents transform their houses into small souvenir shops selling postcards and souvenirs not only produced by themselves, but also cheap tourist merchandise from nearby cities, or even Taiwan.

Akha Hilltribe


The Akha originally came from the highlands of Tibet to settle in Northern Thailand at around 1900. Their fascinating head dress and jewellery distinguish their women from those of other hill-tribes. They prefer to build their settlements at an altitude of 1,000 meters and their houses are usually built on stilts with no windows, while their roofs are made of thatch and their animals live under the house.

Lahu Hilltribe


Lisu Hilltribe


Karen Hilltribe - The long Neck Women

The Karen Hilltribe (also known as Padaung) fled the brutal military regime in neighboring Myanmar  two decades ago, and they have been confined in three guarded villages on the northern Thai border ever since.  Since then they have become a major tourist attraction, with people from all corners coming to see the long neck women

The majority of Karen Hilltribe women wear one long brass coil which looks like they are wearing a number of brass rings around their necks. This distorts the growth of their collarbones and make them look as if they have long necks (which they actually don't.) The brass coil doesn't stretch their necks but in fact it squashes the vertebrae and collar bones. 


They start wearing the rings at the age of around 5 or 6 years old, and each year the coil is replaced with a longer one. They can reach a lenth equivalent of 20-25 rings (loops) around her neck.

When asked why they wear them, they say that it makes them more attractive and that men choose women who have the most rings as the most attractive for marriage. Others say that it is to protect them against wild animals. One thing for sure. It definitely attracts tourist in this area. Now as far as who benefits more from this is another story.. Unfortunately the majority of the tourist income is collected from people who organize the trips, living the Karen with an income as low as 1500 baht (euro 30).


Karen Hilltribe - The Ear Piercing Women

In the Karen Hilltribe village one can see in addition to the Long deck women the Ear piercing Women. Well it seems that all sorts of strange habits’ exist in this small community.



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