Hill Tribes, Chiang Rai

Founded: Early 13th century
History: Founded by King Meng Rai; capital of the Lanna kingdom
Trivia #1: Was under Burmese rule
Trivia #2: Holds the title of the oldest city in Thailand


In my travels in northern Thailand, I had the opportunity to visit a few of the centuries-old hill tribes, coming face to face with the living and walking traditions of a history long past.

What mesmerised me most was the extreme lengths humans do to be beautiful. Though the hill tribe ‘village’ I’ve visited is touristy in nature, nevertheless, it left a deep impression on me as seeing the women in their traditional costumes somewhat shook my notions of what beautiful is.

A young girl of the Karen hill tribe

Today, Chiang Rai is well-known for its diverse hill tribe inhabitants, Mae Sai, Chiang Saen town, peculiar temples, trekking hotspots and, of course, the infamous Golden Triangle.

To better appreciate the historical background, one needs to understand the origins of the many hill tribes people who had settled down in Thailand. And, in a way, knowing the story of Chiang Rai and how it came to be today greatly helps to give a good perspective of this once important state that has faded fast.

A middle-aged Akha hill tribeswoman

Originally from Myanmar (old name’s Burma), the early people of the hill tribes living in Thailand ventured out of their ancestral land and eventually found their way in the lush forests and fertile land in northern Thailand. But wait. Where did the hill tribes from Myanmar come from? After some digging on the internet, I discovered that the earliest hill tribes originated from China, Tibet, Nepal, Laos and Vietnam, besides Myanmar.

Historically, it was understood that they moved out of their ancestral lands due to political persecution, decades-long wars and to escape generations of hardship and poverty, all for a better future.

According to Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP), There are 6 major hill tribes that make up about 90% of all hill tribespeople in Thailand, namely: Akha, Hmong, Lu Mien, Lahu, Kayaw and Karen.

The Hill Tribe Village that was set up to group some of the more prominent tribes together to give the villagers to sell their traditional crafts and for tourists to get a glimpse into their world.

The hill tribe village may appear to be touristy as these are store fronts peddling their handicrafts and trinkets, but do bear in mind that most of these good folks do not have jobs nor a proper education, so, do support them if you decide to drop by.


Wandering around the vicinity, I can’t help but wonder if any meaningful help are being rendered to these people. They are decent, simple folks who, unfortunately, are caught in such a gloomy situation (from my understanding from my guide) that they do not have citizenship rights and that means a whole lot of difference to having access to education, healthcare and many other benefits an ordinary citizen would received.

Does the lack of basic entitlements draw them away from the society further? I think not. As I explored their living quarters (some of them do allow you to take a peep inside) and interacted with them, most of them appeared satisfied with a simple life setup – Farming, weaving and taking care of their families, they seemed contented and at peace. Or do they? As a foreigner and a tourist, I don’t really know. All I know is that I’m looking at a piece of rapidly vanishing culture in the river of history.

Travel Story Contributor:
Daniel Chen



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