Most of the tribes in northwestern Thailand live along the lower slopes of the mountains. They speak various languages which come from either the Mon Khmer or Tai group. Most of the people are bilingual, speaking both their native language and Northern Thai. Many also use the Northern Thai script.

China is the original homeland of most of these tribes. They gradually migrated southward due to pressure by the Chinese. As they traveled, they conquered many peoples along the way. By the tenth century, a large number had settled in Thailand.

Northern Thailand is the site of the early Mon kingdom which was founded in the sixth century. The kingdom fell to the Thai during the thirteenth century, and this allowed the northwestern region to retain a degree of independence from Bangkok until the late nineteenth century.

Over the years, Thailand has had many governmental changes and military riots. For the peoples in northwestern Thailand, warfare and resettlement have caused massive social displacement.

What Are Their Lives Like?

Most of the tribes live in the mountainous areas of northern Thailand where they practice the slash and burn method of farming. Unfortunately, this has caused many of the tropical evergreen forests that grow naturally in this region to be destroyed. For this reason, the tribes must continually relocate their villages. Although the farmers have been encouraged by the Thai government to move to the plains and cultivate rice in irrigated fields, many have continued to use the slash and burn method.

Rice is the staple crop for most of these groups. Maize and opium poppies are also raised. Dry rice is cultivated with a digging stick, rather than with a plow or oxen. Those who grow rice for consumption and sale still use primitive, wooden equipment drawn by buffalo.

For years, opium was the main source of cash among the tribes. However, due to the gradual suppression of the opium trade, the government has encouraged the people to raise pigs and peppers instead.

The tribal villages are located either on raised ground surrounded by rice fields, or on high ground on either side of a road or pathway. Various types of houses can be found in the villages. The wealthier people often live in sturdy, mahogany homes that are raised off the ground and have plank floors and tile roofs. Those with lower incomes may live in thatched roof, bamboo houses that have dirt floors.

The single most important social institution in the village is the temple. It symbolizes unity among the villagers, and provides a wide variety of activities for the people.