Thailand is full of myths and legends, many of which surround the ancient tribes that still exist in the northern regions of the country. Groups of ethnic minorities call the hilly regions of Northern Thailand home and each tribe has a distinct, unique history.
It is believed that these tribes migrated from parts of China and Myanmar as many as 2000 years ago and have called Thailand there home ever since. A largely nomadic people before they found Thailand, each minority has a varied history and culture that represent an ancient world.
The Karen people represent the largest hill tribe in Thailand. More than 300,000 Karen live in Thailand and there are some 7 million throughout the rest of Asia. The Karen in Thailand live in the northwest of the country along the Burmese border.
A more integrated society than other hill tribes, the Karen have settled into more permanent locations and have built farming communities that are more accepted by the Thai people. The Karen live in lower-land areas and have pursued more environmentally friendly farming practices in recent years with their terraced rice fields now famous the world over.
Many of the hill tribe populations in Thailand are considered outcasts. They live a traditional way of life and shun modern conveniences. Due to their nomadic way of life, hill tribes ignore international borders which has been frowned upon by the Thai government and people. Also, many of the hill tribes have grown opium as a vital part of their economy for centuries.
When the international war on drugs rapidly escalated over the last few decades, the hill tribes have had to change crops to avoid prosecution and persecution from the governments of Southeast Asia.
The continued unrest in neighbouring Burma has also seen a large population of hill tribe cultures filter over the border into Thailand. Refugee camps along the border are now commonplace and hundreds of thousands of people from various hill tribe cultures find themselves in these camps along the Thailand/Burma border.
Many of the hill tribes have bloody histories, having been pushed out of their home lands north of Thailand and having been subjected to horrific campaigns of murder and subjugation. The Hmong people, originally from China, have been pushed from the country to country and have settled across Southeast Asia.
The Hmong can also be found in Vietnam and Laos and a large population were moved to America following the Vietnam War as they aided the American cause. The Hmong have integrated well into modern Thai society but still maintain their own way of life.
The Yao or Mien tribe were almost solely reliant on the sale of opium up until very recently and are the only hill tribe in northern Thailand with a written language. The Yao people dress in extravagant and beautiful clothes, with jewelry a key component of their culture and the women famed for their sewing and cross-stitch skills.
The Thai government only recognises six official hill tribes that live in the northern area of the country but there are many sub-cultures and strands of various recognised tribes that play an important part in the history and culture of the region.
An experience with a hill tribe, whether it be a day-long visit or an overnight stay is an unforgettable experience. Many tribes are wary of visitors but will open their homes and hearts to newcomers and you will be able to experience a culture unlike any other outside of Southeast Asia.
With the rapid development of the modern world and modernised Thailand right on their doorsteps, spending time with a people that have made limited changes for thousands of years is a wonderful, unique and soulful experience.