The Lawa people - the indigenous people of North Thailand​

Table of Contents

The Lawa people – History

The Lawa people are considered the indigenous people of Thailand. They lived in North Thailand before the Thai people migrated from China in the 11th century. The Chiang Mai Chronicle mentions the Lawa people. They are often called Lua, which is confusing. Recently we met Lua people at a tribal festival in Mae Sai. The Lua look very different but might be related.

The Lawa people are often classified as hilltribes but there several reasons why they stand out. The hilltribes (Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Yao and Palong) migrated to Northern Thailand from the early 20th century onwards. The Karen people arrived many centuries earlier in what is now Northern Thailand.

Unlike the groups mentioned above, the Lawa seem to be related to Mon-Khmer people who migrated to Thailand and Cambodia from Southern China about 4000 years ago 1 They might be amongst the first inhabitants of Northern Thailand. They might have been here as early as the 5th century. Their language is related to languages in the Mon-Khmer language group.

Old and young woman in tribal dress Two Lawa women in Ban Dong Things to do in Mae Sariang
Two Lawa women in Ban Dong

Where do they live?

The Lawa are a small group. The probably number not more than 20000 people. There is a distinction between the East and West Lawa. The East Lawa live near the village of Bo Luang on the road from Hot to Mae Sariang. The West Lawa live in Mae Sariang district. Lawa villages feature in Mae Sariang Tours.

There are Lawa villages north of the Mae Sa Valley, near Chiang Mai. There are also Lawa villages near Doi Lo, south of Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai Province there are in total 19 Lawa Villages, 13 in Mae Hong Son Province and 1 in Chiang Rai Province 2

Green rice fields
Rice paddies of the Lawa village Baan Dong
Green rice fields with mountains

The West Lawa: Bo Luang

In the Lawa language, Bô (pronounced like the Thai word for a well or mine) means village. Bo Luang is the largest of five villages connected by narrow rice fields lying in the shallow valleys on the plateau. Bo Luang is in Hot district, on the road 108, west of the town of Hot. The other four villages are Bo Sa’ngae, Bo Pak Wen, Bo Wang Kong and Bo Na Fon.The latter is about 5 km distant from Bo Luang, and itself subdivided into two villages.

Further west on the road to Mae Sariang there are two other villages, Bo Sali and Bo Kong Loi. British consul Reginald Hillyer wrote this in his tour report of 1934. “At Baw Luang is to be found a colony of Lawa (Mon-Khmer family), the remnants of a once-mighty kingdom extending over most of Northern Siam, who possess their own language and costume.”3

Tribal textiles
Lawa textiles

The East Lawa: Baan Pa Pae and Baan La Up

Baan Pa Pae is in Mae Sariang District, Mae Hong Son Province. Baan Dong and Baan La Up are in Mae La Noi District in the same province. The Lawa living here are called East Lawa. On the road 108 from Hot to Mae Sariang, you have to turn right about 20 km before you reach Mae Sariang. The road to Baan Pa Pae is a sealed road. American anthropologist Charles Keyes visited Baan Pa Pae in 1968 and made many photographs in the village. Peter Kunstadter, another American anthropologist, lived in Baan Pa Pae from January 1964 until January 1968, with several intervals. 4 Charles Keyes made many photographs in Pa Pae during a visit in 1968. In December 2018 we went to Papae and delivered prints of these photographs to local people. They recognized family members on these pictures. It was very moving. You can find the photographs and field notes of Charles Keyes on this website

Panorama of clouds and mountains
Panorama road to Baan La Up

Missionaries at work

American missionaries and anthropologists have been active in Lawa villages. Don and Janet Schlatter of the New Tribes Mission lived in Baan Kong Loi for many years. Don translated the bible into Lawa language. People in Baan Dong spoke with respect about Father Don when I visited the village in December 2018. Every year there is a big Christmas meeting of Lawa people in Mae Hong Son province. Thousands of people showed up for the meeting that was held in Mae Sariang in 2018.

Baan Dong and Baan Huay Horm

The villages Baan Dong and Baan La Up (Ban La Oop) are accessible via Mae La Noi town. A beautiful winding road of about 25 km leads to Baan La Up. A bit further is the Karen village Huay Horm which is very popular for its coffee. Huay Horm has several homestays. On the road to Huay Horm, you will pass the turnoff to Baan Dong. Baan Dong is the location of a Royal Project. Before you enter the village, there are some charming views of its rice fields. Before they constructed the road, Charles Keyes walked from Mae La Noi to Baan Dong and Baan La Up in 1968. He made several beautiful photographs. We printed them and delivered them to the village. Baan Dong has several homestays and also a small weaving centre.

The Lawa people have their own traditional dress. Occasionally you will see elderly women wear traditional dress in the village. Some of the women are outstanding weavers.

Girl working on a silver jewellery

Baan La Up, the village of silver artisans

Baan La Up is the most visited Lawa village in the country. Its location is spectacular. There are a couple of excellent silversmiths. Apart from that, there are several houses where local people produce delicious banana chips and other delicacies. Baan La Up has a number of homestays. It is a popular destination for Thai tourists in the cold season.

For more information on Baan La Up and Baan Dong have a look at Things to do in Mae Sariang

  1. p.154 HUTCHINSON,E.W. THE LAWA IN NORTHERN SIAM. JSS. VOL.27 (pt.2) 1935
  2. Dr.Ramzi W.Nahhas, Sociolinguistic Survey of Lawa in Thailand, SIL International, 2011
  3. Report on a Consular Tour made in the Province of Mehongsawn, January - February 1934 by vice-consul Chiang Mai R.A.N.Hillyer
  4. Peter Kunstadter, E. C. Chapman, Sanga Sabhasri: Farmers in the Forest: Economic Development and Marginal Agriculture in Northern Thailand, 1978,  p.119