that inhabit the hills of Northern Thailand have long been a curiosity for visitors
to the kingdom. Living a life apart from the lowland Thais, these migratory people seem
trapped in a time warp stretching back to the middle ages.
the mountains of Chiang Mai and adjacent provinces were almost empty of human
habitation. The Thai and associated groups, like the Shan and Thai Lue, inhabited the
valleys but left the hills to nature. Oppressed by authority, population pressures, or
just an extension of a nomadic way of life, the hilltribes gradually moved in to the north
of Thailand and occupied and exploited this empty land. Most of this immigration has
occurred within the last hundred years.
two notable exceptions; The Karen have lived on the northern and western Borders for
about 300 years, and the Lawa or Lua were in and around Chiang Mai before the Thai arrived
700 years ago.
(Meo), the Akha, the Lahu (Muser), the Lisu, and the Yao (Mien) are all relatively
military oppression by the Burmese has meant an influx of more minorities into
the border areas where they seek sanctuary. They are mostly Karen and affiliated tribes,
the most notable being the Padaung, whose women stretch their necks with brass rings.
Probably the least known of the northern Thailand mountain minorities the Lawa are probably the
most interesting. The Lawa were the first people to inhabit the Chiang Mai valley in
historic times and are referred to in myth and legend.
The 'Phu Sae Ya Sae' or 'grandfather, grandmother' spirits ceremony in which the 'good'
represented by Buddha, overcomes 'evil' represented by a medium in a 'cannibalistic'
trance, is still performed annually every June near Chiang Mai city and has its origins in
ancient Lawa ritual. Ancient grave sites and remnants of old settlements indicate a
sophisticated people inhabited the area before the Thai arrived seven hundred years ago.
Today the Lawa have either fully assimilated into Thai society as in some villages in the the
Chiang Mai city area and only retain some of their language, or they have been
marginalized into 'hilltribe' villages in the Mae La Noi and Mae Chaem ares. They might
sometimes be seen in the market at Mae Sariang. These 'hilltribe' Lawa are mixing and
intermarrying with the neighboring Karen.
They are not migratory, like many of the hilltribes, but live in settled villages that have
been there for sometimes hundreds of years. They cultivate wet padi rice and sell
vegetables and forest products to the local markets.
In dress they are similar to the Karen except the women wear a short sarong with a
'lightning' pattern, wear a lot of brightly colored beads around their necks, and can
occasionally be seen with black lacquered leg bands made of cane. Their language is of the
Mon-Khmer group and they have many rituals and spirits of which the Karen are very