The Akhas represent about 3% of Thailand's hill tribe population and are the most tradition-bound group. Many can recite the ancestral names of up to 50 generations. Once a highland tribe, the Akhas are slowly moving into the lowland valleys in search of more arable land. Many of them now offer trekking to tourists in Chiang Rai province.
The Hmong are a fiercely independent tribe of Sino-Tibetan origin. Numbering about 65,000 in Thailand, they are scattered throughout the northern highlands where they cultivate opium poppies at a greater rate than any other tribal group.
As with other nomadic tribes, the Hmong maintain much of their wealth in silver jewelry. The women are particularly distinctive with long dark hair woven with horse or human hair switches to create an enormous bun.
With over 260,000 members, the Karens are the largest tribal group in Thailand and account for over half of the tribal people in the country. Originally from Tibet, these most western of assimilated Thai hill tribe people have been in Thailand since the 18th century. The Karens are most noted for their ongoing and often bloody struggle with the Burmese government for an autonomous homeland as another four million Karens live in Burma. The Karen people occupy low-lying areas, are excellent farmers and are not significant growers of opium. While at times it is difficult to identify them by their outward appearance, most wear silver armbands and don beaded sashes and headbands. Single women wear white.
Perhaps the most welcoming of all the tribal groups in Thai-land, the Lahu number roughly 40,000 and live in villages situated above 1,000 metres. The Lahu farm poppies, dry rice, corn, and other cash crops. A singular cultural identity is not easily found among the Lahus, due to the continuing tumult of migration. They worship a deity that is Tibetan in origin and have borrowed the Buddhist practice of merit making. Many have absorbed Christian theology into their belief system. In addition, they practice a Lahu form of voodoo. They are also noted for their keen music skills.
The Lisu are one of the smallest minority hill tribe groups in Thailand, representing only 5% of all tribal people. Arriving from Burma in 1920, the Lisu live at very high altitudes where they can grow subsistence crops. The Lisu are hardworking and extremely competitive in their day-to-day life. Even their clothing is brash, incorporating a multitude of bright colors, embellished with hundreds of silver trinkets. They lead well-structured lives and are among the most successful of all Thailand's tribal people.
Mien (aka Yao)
The 33,000 Mien in Thailand are closely connected to their Chinese roots and still incorporate the Han language into their own. Considered the most attractive facially and considered the aristocrats of all tribal groups. They are ancestor worshippers, burying rather than cremating their dead, and even celebrate the Chinese New Year. Mien farmers practice shifting agriculture depending more on rice and corn rather than poppies. Their silver work is among the most intricate and is the most highly prized, even by other tribes. Wealth is held by the femaile members of the tribe and is measured by the amount of silver worn, sometimes the ladies will wear between 10 and 20 kilograms of silver at ceremonial occasions.