The Akha are amongst the poorest of the hill tribes in northern Thailand and are known as Igor by the Thai. They originate principally from Yunnan and are related to the Hani there. There are various subgroups including the Yi or Lolo, with a language derived from the Tibetan-Burman linguistic group. They have no written language and depend solely on oral tradition. They began to migrate to Thailand, about one hundred years ago, and like the U Lo and the Loimi (fig.), the two main groups in Thailand, they are originally from Burma. The subgroups can be differentiated by the women's headdress, which is unique for each group.

They usually live high in the mountains where, until recently, they were engaged in the cultivation of opium. After a ban on opium, most of them with government support, turned to other crops. Originally the Akha were an animist people. Their religion, called the Akha Way, consisted mainly of ancestral worship and a belief in spirits. Today almost a quarter of them are converts to Christianity, which is seen as a modern version of the Akha Way and sometimes co-exist with their animist beliefs and practices.

Still seen today, is the typical spirit gate (fig.) on each side of an Akha village. It separates the human world from the one of the bush spirits, and protects against them. Each year, at the beginning of the rice planting season, the villagers install new gates and decorate them with several objects to scare away evil spirits. These objects are often valuables or symbols of human wealth, amulets and carvings of naked or copulating humans (fig.); such things are feared by the spirits living in the forest. Typically in Akha villages is a giant wooden swing (fig.) used by the villagers to celebrate the harvest literally by singing and swinging.

The traditional male attire is, nowadays, usually preserved for special festivities, but Akha people are easily recognized by their unique features and physiognomy (fig.). They often wear topknots (fig.) and may occasionally be seen with very particular hats. The female dress is clearly the most impressive amongst the hill tribes, particularly the imposing headdres. From an early age girls first wear a colourful bonnet on which ornaments, such as silver coins, coloured fur, shells and beads are added until they reach adulthood. Eventually they are given a helmet type headdress for adult women (fig.) after undergoing several important rites. Some say it is Akha custom that the male buys the woman's headdress for his future wife and that once she puts it on, she has to wear it for the rest of her life. According to the subgroup they belong to this headdress differs: the Loimi Akha (fig.) wear a hat with silver balls and coins in the front and a silver plate at the back (fig.). The silver balls are also made from coins, which are hammered into thin hemispheres using a mould, which are then joined together into hollow balls. The U Lo Akha (fig.) on the other hand wear a conical bonnet with coins and colourful coils of fur, whilst others might have just a scarf. The largest headdress among the Akha is that of the so-called Pahmi (fig.). It consists of a large flap decorated with silver pins, which has a plate at the back and on the sides has horse flap-like covers, which are overall red in colour and decorated with silver coins and some other silver jewelry. This enormous headdress also has several strings of beads in different colours (fig.). The Akha headdress is worn by the women at all times, i.e. not just at ceremonies, though when working in the field some might at times wear just a scarf.

The calves of the women are cloaked in dark blue puttees and from their waist hangs a short black knee-length skirt, flat in front and pleated at the back. Around the waist they sometimes wear a broad colourful sash, with one end hanging in front of the skirt. A shawl, is sometimes worn with a single ribbon covering the torso from above the breast to the navel (fig.) and on top of this they may wear a long sleeved waist-jacket. The jacket as well as the shawl and leggings are often decorated with colourful embroidery. Today, the Akha in Thailand also have their own flag (fig.). TO LEXICON.


With around 265,000 the Karen are the largest hill tribe in Thailand. They have lived in the region for many centuries and are divided into several subgroups, of which the most numerous in Thailand are the Sakoh (Sgaw), Pwo and Kayah, besides the Kayang and Padong, both Long-neck Karen, and the Kayaw, a smaller subgroup whose women are typified by their long earlobes (fig.). The word ‘Karen’ is not known to the different subgroups themselves and the Thais call them Kariang and Nyang. The term is however generally used by anthropologists when referring to certain tribes who speak closely related tongues but are not closely related to the languages of other hill tribes. They are therefore placed in a separate category within the Tibetan-Burmese family of the Sino-Tibetan language group.

Prince Kawila integrated a large number of them into the local population of Chiang Mai when he re-populated the city.  The majority of Karen nowadays live in Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, but they are also found in Phrae, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Tak and Kanchanaburi. In Burma there are approximately four million. A considerable number of the Karen are Christian or Buddhist and the first Karen script was developed in 1832 by a Christian missionary in Burma. Karen villages are seldom high in the mountains and the men are often skilled mahouts (fig.), perhaps a reason why the name Karen is related to the Sanskrit word for elephant, i.e. karin. They are also often physically attractive and of a cheerful disposition.

The traditional male attire is usual a red sleeveless shirt with v-shaped neck. The women wear a similar shirt of a darker colour (fig.) over a long red sarong of which the texture indicates to which clan they belong. Young girls wear a long white skirt in a similar shape as the shirt but reaching to the ankles and trimmed with a pink band (fig.). The women belonging to the Long-neck Karen (fig.) wear a similar though shorter version of this girls garment, and on top of a black sarong. The female Long-neck Karen wear blue puttees on their calves, underneath brass rings. They also wear brass rings around their arms and usually have a coloured scarf. Other Karen women usually wear a turban-like headdress.

One of the subgroups of the Long-neck Karen in Thailand, the Kayan or Kayang, who originally came from Burma, live today mainly in the provinces of Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai, close to the border with Myanmar. Their name also refers to their language. Their women's traditional costume includes the wearing of brass coils. After 1000 AD the Kayang people dealt economically and socially with the neighbouring Shan and the women were often seduced by these outsiders. Then the Pwo from the Thaton region alerted the Kayang that about atrocities the Burman people had inflicted upon them, so the Kayang started to look for a solution on how to avert these threats.

Since they are descendants from Lan Nan Htu Su and Ka Kwe Bu Pe, they decided to institute a status symbol for their women. According to folklore, when the girls Mu Don and Mu Dan visited their grandmother, the lady dragon, they were presented with gold bars when they left. They then started to decorated themselves by winding gold coils around their wrists and necks. As gold was rare the need for brass arose. This was obtained by exchanging silver with the Shan traders, mainly provided by those of the Satoung village. Since 1070 AD the Kayang women have worn brass coils. There are several reasons for wearing them e.g. to avoid an unwelcome advance by the Shan and Burman chiefs; as cultural identity and to distinguish themselves from other ethnic groups and protect the women from intermingling with other races; and as a status symbol, as they are descendants of the mother dragon they adorn themselves in her likeness, with the idea that how longer the neck is, the more graceful the looks are.

The Kayang Long Necks start wearing brass coils from the age of four. From then onward the rings are changed about twice until the age of fourteen, with loops being added to the spiral about every three years, as the girl grows and ages. Brass coils for adults usually consist of multiple parts that is, a main coil of 16-22 (max. 25) windings, with at the base a separate 5-6 coil winding, onto which a smaller coil of 62 mm diameter with 5 loops is attached perpendicularly, at the back.

Each set of brass rings is made in one piece from a single brass rod and a total set of rings for adults can easily weigh up to 8 kilos, depending on the size and number of coils. The men prepare the brass rods but it are the women who fix the rings. Brass is a tough metal and the winding is done manually by any strong woman with exceptional talent, called a fixer. Besides the side affects of flesh wounds, wearing the brass coils may over time result in pains in the shoulders and displacement of the collar bone, as due to the permanent weight of the brass, the collar bone is pushed down and compresses the rib cage. But still, most woman want to wear their brass, even after death. For example, brass coils removed during illness have to be reinstated after death and if this is not possible the brass must be placed in the coffin. However, some women hand their brass coils down to their granddaughters, in the manner as the lady dragon presented her granddaughters with gold.

Apart from being an adornment, the brass rings also have a practical use, serving as a treasury where banknotes are kept, stuck away between the neck and the rings. There are however also many incorrect rumours about the Long Neck women, not based on facts, e.g. that a new ring is added every year (untrue: that's only with trees!); that the rings protect against tiger bites (untrue: have you ever been bitten by a tiger? - don't think the rings will save you!); that the rings are made of pure gold (untrue: according to folklore that's how it began, but if it would be true today, that would mean around five kilos of pure gold for every Long Neck woman in the village - can't call that poor!); that if the rings are removed the neck will break, resulting in certain death (true: every death is certain, but untrue with regards to the neck and the rings, as they are removed at times, during illness or when they are replaced with a new or larger one - the long neck is just optical deception!); that all the women who wear the brass coils were all born on a full moon [untrue: maybe they were conceived on a full moon?! :) ].

The Kayang religion, in which they worship the Kan Thein Bo pole, is called Kan Khwan. Besides the Kayang also the Ndebele tribe of South Africa and the Dimeka tribe of Ethiopia wear brass coils around their neck. The Kayang are also called Kayan. TO LEXICON.


The Lahu are a hill tribe of whom the majority lives in the northern Thai provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (fig.). Emigrating from Burma they settled in Thailand around the end of the 19th century. Today they number around 60,000 and live usually in pile dwellings high up in the mountains (fig.). They divide themselves into subgroups named after the main colour of their garment. Besides the Red Lahu (Lahu Nyi), the Yellow Lahu (Lahu Shi) and White Lahu (Lahu Hpu), there are two more subgroups of Black Lahu (Lahu Na), who distinguish themselves by different languages and traditions, with one group calling themselves Laho Na, known to the others as Lahu Shehleh.

The female traditional attire of the Lahu Shehleh or Lahu Na (also called Mussur Dam) is a long black silk-like gown, trimmed with white and sleeves with white, blue and red bands (fig.). The male dress is a black pair of culottes sometimes trimmed with a blue belt. Lahu Nyi women wear a waist-deep jacket sleeved with horizontal bands in namely red and blue. Each subgroup has its own dialect belonging to the Lolo branch of the Tibetan-Burmese language group, of which the standard language is Lahu Na, a language also spoken by most other Lahu people outside Thailand (in Burma, Laos, Vietnam and China) and which is close related to the language spoken by the Lisu.

The Thai name for this people is Mussur and divides into Mussur Daeng (Red Mussur), Mussur Dam (Black Mussur) and Mussur Kwi, of which the meaning is unknown. Because many Lahu are converts to Christianity, the Thai also refer to them as Mussur Khrit (Christian Lahu), although they do worship Ai-ma, the mother goddess of the earth, as well. TO LEXICON.


The Lisu (Liso) are an formerly animist people with a shaman-like veneration of ancestors. There are today around 25,000 Lisu in Thailand and many are converts to Christianity. Their light skin and fair complexion gave them the reputation to be the most beautiful amongst the hill tribes. Until recently the Lisu lived principally from the cultivation of poppies but, after a ban on opium imposed under pressure from the United States, crops were destroyed and many of them became ruined. Most were able to swap to the cultivation of other crops, but practiced slash and burn techniques destroying many acres of forest for just a few crops. To make the same profits as with opium much more land is needed. This in combination with commercial logging causes frequent landslides and floods in the rainy season, whilst overproduction and low prices made the market plummet.

The language of the Lisu belongs to the Yi or Lolo branch of the Tibetan-Burmese language group and probably originated in Tibet, though the core of the population lives mainly in the North of the South-Chinese province Yunnan, west of the Salween river. This area is also home to the Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey, a rare species of monkey, which has inspired this tribe's legend, as the Lisu people believe it to be related to their ancestors, and refer to it as the Wild Man of the Mountain. From this province, translated meaning the ‘Land under the Cloud, they spread west, south and eastward, and partly entered Thailand around the end of the 19th century AD via Chiang Mai.

The female traditional attire is a loose colourful apron-like skirt, often light green or sky blue, which in front reaches to the knees and in the back to the calves. Its wide sleeves usually reach no further than the lower arm and are often bright red. The top of the skirt is covered with colourful embroidery and around the neck there is a black band ending in coloured stripes, sometimes in bright contrasting colours. Underneath the skirt they wear a wide black pair of culottes reaching to just under the knees, and sometimes they have red puttees around their calves. A waist belt holds the skirt up. During festivities and on special occasions, the girls and women also wear a flat circular hat, which is adorned with beads and strings, and topped with tiny pom-poms (fig.).

The men wear a loose, bright blue pair of culottes reaching to just below the knees, and a black jacket usually ornamented with silver. They may also wear black puttees. As many other hill tribes the Lisu people play their traditional music on instruments made from natural products, such as bamboo (fig.). Today Lisu women are more often seen in traditional dress than the men (fig.) TO LEXICON.

Yao/Iu Mien

A hill tribe in southern China and in northern Thailand, where they are called (Iu) Mien, but by the Chinese and the Thais they are named after the language they speak, namely Yao. In Yao language Mien means ‘people’, but in Laos and Vietnam they are called Man, an old Chinese word for ‘barbarian’ which also refers to groups other than the Iu Mien. The Yao language is part of the Miao-Yao-Pateng family, a subgroup of the Sino-Tibetan language group that also includes Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan. Members of the Iu Mien can often speak Yunnan Chinese, the language spoken in the most southern province of China, or the close related Mandarin. Being able to read and write Chinese has always been held in high respect by the Iu Mien. Their liturgical language is an old form of Chinese, comparable to Pali in Buddhism, and Chinese characters are also used writing Yao.

The Yao migrated to Thailand during the 19th century encouraged by the trade in opium and the retaliation of the Chinese government as a result of local revolt in southern China during that period. They entered Thailand through Laos in the late 19th century and settled in the province Nan, and in what today is called Phayao. Large numbers came after World War II and settled mainly in and around Chiang Rai. Their total number in Thailand is estimated at around 40,000 and their distinguished religion is a mixture of animism, ancestral worship and Taoism.

The female traditional attire is loose pair of trousers and a dark blue almost black jacket embroidered at the bottom and with a dark red pompom-like collar resembling a stole. Their headdress consists of a dark coloured angular hat, ornamented with embroidery. They often wear a heavy silver ring around their neck and children sometimes have a traditional cap with red pompoms. The male attire consist of a dark blue to black pair of culottes and a loose jacket in the same colour with a double cuff (fig.). In China, the Yao women of Jinxiu, in the Autonomous Region of Guangxi Juang, wear an ensemble with silver adornments and cross-stitched embroidery (fig.). In Vietnam, the Yao are known as Dao. TO LEXICON.


The Hmong are a hill tribe people (fig.) in northern Thailand, who originated in either Tibet or Mongolia, and of whom today around 5 million still live in China where they settled as early as 4,000 years ago and are known as Miao (fig.). They are called Maew by the Thais and their religion is a mixture of ancestral worship, belief in spirits, and Taoism. Their language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language group of the Miao-Yao-Pateng family, with several dialects. They settled in Thailand via Laos more than a century ago and today their numbers is around 90,000 with the Blue Hmong (fig.) more living in the West, and the Hmong Doew (White Hmong) more in the East of northern Thailand, and there are also Hmong in Vietnam (fig.).

Many Hmong helped U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, fighting under CIA advisers during the so-called Secret War in Laos, before it fell to the communists in 1975. The Hmong claim they have been persecuted by the Lao government ever since and many are known to have fled to Thailand since 1975, though most were later either repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries. The Hmong are in many aspects similar to the Yao or Iu Mien. The Blue Hmong call themselves Hmong Njua, what literally in their language actually means ‘Green’ Hmong. The women wear black jackets with an embroidered collar (fig.) and black puttees underneath a pleated batik skirt reaching to the knees. Originally, their hair style is tufted.

White Hmong on the other hand, are called white, because their women traditionally wore white dresses, though today they also wear a black pair of trousers underneath a long apron hanging over the shoulders to the front and back, and kept together with a red to orange piece of cloth tied around their waist with a silver belt. They also, wear their hair in a tuft or, cover their heads with a small conical hat. From the back of their jackets hangs a large rectangular and colourful piece of cloth, like a flap.

Hmong boys and men wear a short black waist-deep jacket with a double cuff, of which the outer one is usually a large embroidered flap. Their trouser are like a black pair of culottes, akin to those of the Hmong Njua (fig.). In Vietnam (fig.), the main subgroups are the Black Hmong (fig.) and Flower Hmong (fig.), as well as the Blue Hmong (fig.), the Green Hmong (fig.) and some White Hmong (fig.). TO LEXICON.