The People of North Thailand

North Thailand is a fascinating mosaic of ethnic groups and various influences. The People of North Thailand come from different backgrounds, directions and countries. The Thai people themselves are immigrants. They originally come from Southern China. When they arrived in this region for more than 1000 years, there were already people living here such as the Mon, the Lawa and other indigenous groups.

This is by no means an complete overview of all the different ethnic groups that are living in North Thailand. I have focused on groups that I think are of interest to a visitor. It is a random selection. Most of the stories about these groups are either linked to a standard tour or can feature in a customized tour. We can customize all our standard tours of course. I have selected groups of people because of their shared identity, not because a shared religion. I don’t pretend to write academic articles. Many of these are also based on my own experiences.

Two women with bamboo hats People of North Thailand
Tai Ya women, Chiang Rai

The Thai or Tai speaking groups

The Thai people are not a homogenous group. The Tai-Kadai or Kra-Dai language group includes people who speak languages that come from the same root (Sanskrit) but have developed into slightly different subgroups such as Shan (Tai Yai), Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Tai Khun, Tai Yong and Tai Ya. Locally these groups developed their customs, traditions and dress. During centuries of warfare, many of these groups were displaced or forcibly resettled. People of all these groups ended up in North Thailand. They still have their own culture and traditions. They also have their own language although many of these languages are under threat of becoming redundant unfortunately.

women in traditional dress in temple people of north thailand
Tai Lue women in temple

The Burmese period

Roughly from 1558 until 1774 Chiang Mai and large parts of North Thailand were part of Burmese kingdoms. The Burmese left their legacy in Chiang Mai. There are lots of Burmese influences in Chiang Mai but they are not immediately visible to visitors. Some Burmese resident businessmen financed the foundation of temples or served the community in other ways. Until 1960 There was a Burmese Wat Upakhut next to the current Thai Wat Upakhut, for instance. There are Shan and Burmese temples in Chiang Mai that have their roots in the period of Burmese occupation of Chiang Mai. Many Shan people are more recent arrivals from Myanmar.

Dressed up boys on shoulders
Poy Sang Long Ceremony Wat Ku Tao

Tribal migration

Borders in Southeast Asia have been porous and they still are to a certain extent. People crossed borders almost at will. Ethnic nomadic groups such as Hmong, Akha, Lisu, Lahu and Yao all migrated to North Thailand from China and Tibet. Due to a variety of reasons such as overpopulation, political unrest and war they moved south into Laos Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. That migration took place during the 20th century, roughly speaking.

More recently the Yao and Hmong escaped political persecution in Laos. The Karen and Palong (Dara-Ang) fled violence in Myanmar. Borders are now less porous, but still, people cross borders illegally.

Our mother company, Green Trails, has a section on the groups that are considered hill tribes in Thailand.

two women in tribal dress
Two Palong women

Chinese and Indians

More orderly was the arrival of the Chinese and Indians. The first Chinese and Indians came as traders, many centuries ago. Many of the groups mentioned above had no real homeland. In the case of Indians and Chinese, this was different. It was what you could call a diaspora. They were not nomadic, not persecuted, not forcibly resettled and didn’t escape from their homelands like other groups. In general, they were immigrants looking for greener pastures, settled mostly in cities, sometimes intermarried and gradually integrated into Thai society.

Chinese temple with lanterns people of north thailand
Pu Thao Kong Shrine Chiang Mai