The word “hill tribe” refers to ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of the northern part of Thailand. Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs. Most of them migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos during the past 200 years or so.
It is estimated that in Thailand there may be up to 20 different hill tribes whose total population is about 550,000. Out of these, the six dominent hill tribes include Yao, Karen (Kariagn), Akha (I-Kaw), Lahu (Musoe), Hmong (Meo) and Lisu (Lisaw). The hill tribes usually grow rice, corn and other agricultural products on the mountainsides. Though in the past some tribal groups such as Yao, Lahu Hmong and Lisu used to grow opium, now with the encouragement of the royal-initiated project, they turn to earn a livelihood through the cultivation of temperate fruit crops like apples, strawberries and other cash crops such as kidney beans, coffee, vegetables and flowers. At the same time, the hill tribes are also encouraged to stop destroying forest through slash-and-burn cultivation.
It is quite easy to see that each tribe and village have their own preference in the styles and designs of their houses, but in general the houses are built in two basic designs, either on the ground with beaten earth floor or raised some feet off the ground on stilts. Materials used in the construction are commonly bamboo poles, split bamboo, wooden poles, planks and thatched roofs of grass and large leaves such as palm leaves.
At present, contacts and trade between tribal people and the lowlanders are quite frequent. Meanwhile, the new tribal generations are exposed to life of the outside world as they come down to pursue their studies or get jobs in city. Therefore, when we visit tourist spots in the North, we will see that there are many tribal people selling their hand-made products and souvenirs. Some of them can speak good English as well. The new tribal generation seems to live in a better life than that of their forefathers whose life was isolated from the rest of the world.