In the late 13th century, King Mengrai united several Tai tribes that had migrated from southern China and built the first capital of the Lanna kingdom in Chiang Rai. Mengrai, whose rule was characterized by strategic alliances, was threatened by Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his incursion into Myanmar (Burma). He quickly forged ties with the powerful kingdom of Sukhothai in the south. The Lanna king vanquished the vestiges of the Mon Empire in Lamphun and, in 1296, moved his new capital south to what is now Chiang Mai. There is a shrine to King Mengrai, around the corner from Chiang Mai's Wat Phan Tao, in the geographical heart of the Old City, where, it is said, he was struck by lightning and killed in 1317.
For the next century, Chiang Mai prospered and the Lanna kingdom grew, absorbing most of what now comprises the Northern provinces. In cahoots, Chiang Mai and Sukhothai were able to resist significant attacks from Khmer and Mon neighbors. After the Lanna dynasty absorbed Sukhothai, forces from Ayutthaya tried repeatedly to take Chiang Mai, but the city refused to yield. Instead, Chiang Mai grew in strength and prospered until the mid-16th century, when it eventually fell to the Burmese in 1558.
For the next 2 centuries, the Lanna kingdom was a Burmese vassal -- Burmese culture is still in evidence today, especially with regard to clothing and cuisine. After Lampang's Lord, or "Chao" Kavila, recaptured Chiang Mai from the Burmese in 1775, the city was so weakened that Kavila moved its surviving citizens to nearby Lampang. For 2 decades, Chiang Mai was akin to a ghost town. Though the city was still nominally under the control of local princes, their power continued to decline, and, in 1932, Chiang Mai was formally incorporated into the modern Thai nation.
A Portrait of the Hill Tribe People
The north is a tapestry of the divergent customs and cultures of the many tribes that migrated from China or Tibet to Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Vietnam and ultimately settled in Thailand's Northern provinces such as Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Phayao, and Nan. The six main tribes are the Karen, Akha (also known as the E-Kaw), Lahu (Mussur), Lisu (Lisaw), Hmong (Meo), and Mien (Yao), each with subgroups that are linked by history, lineage, language, costume, social organization, and religion.
Hill-tribes in northern Thailand are subdivided into Sino-Tibetan speakers (Hmong, Mien) and Tibeto-Burman speakers (Lahu, Akha, Lisu, and Karen), though most now speak some Thai.
In addition, tribes are divided geographically into lowland, or valley, dwellers, who grow cyclical crops such as rice or corn, and high-altitude dwellers, who traditionally grew opium poppies. The so-called indigenous tribes, who have occupied the same areas for hundreds of years, are those that tend to inhabit the lower valleys in organized villages of split-log huts. The nomadic groups generally live above 1,000m (3,280 ft.) in easy-to-assemble bamboo and thatch housing, ready to resettle when required.
Highland minorities believe in spirits, and it is the role of the village shaman, or spiritual leader, to understand harbingers and prescribe appeasing rites.
Karen -- An estimated 350,000 Karen make up the largest tribal group in Thailand, accounting for more than half of all tribal people in the country. In nearby Myanmar (Burma), it is estimated that there are more than four million people of Karen descent (who are practicing Buddhists and Christians). For years, the Burmese government has been suppressing Karen independence fighters who want an autonomous homeland. Many Burmese Karen have sought refuge in Thailand, ranging from Chiang Rai to as far south as Kanchanaburi. Practicing either Buddhism or an amalgamation of Christianity absorbed from missionaries and ancient animism, Karen can be easily identified by their method of greeting one another: an exaggerated, hearty handshake.
The Karen are among the most assimilated of Thailand's hill-tribes, making it difficult to identify them by any outward appearance. However, the most traditional tribespeople wear silver armbands and don a beaded sash and headband, while unmarried women wear white shift dresses.
Hmong (Meo) -- The Hmong are a nomadic tribe scattered throughout Southeast Asia and China. About 150,000 Hmong live in Thailand, with the greatest number residing in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Phetchabun, and Phrae provinces; there are approximately four million Hmong living in China. Within Thailand, there are several subgroups; the Hmong Daw (White Hmong) and the Hmong Njua (Blue Hmong) are the main divisions. The Hmong Gua Mba (Armband Hmong) is a subdivision of the Hmong Daw.
Hmong live in the highlands, cultivating corn, rice, and soybeans, which are grown as subsistence crops. Their wealth is displayed in a vast array of silver jewelry. Women are easily recognized by the way they pile their hair into an enormous bun on top of their heads and by their elaborately embroidered, pleated skirts. The Hmong are also excellent animal breeders, and their ponies are especially prized.
Hmong are pantheistic and rely on shamans to perform spiritual rites. Hmong place particular emphasis on the use of doors: doors for entering and exiting the human world, doors to houses, doors to let in good fortune and to block bad spirits, and doors to the afterlife. The Hmong also worship their ancestors -- a reverberation of their Chinese past. Because they're skilled entrepreneurs, Hmong are increasingly moving down from the highlands to ply trades in the lowlands.
Lahu (Mussur) -- The Lahu people (pop. 82,000) are composed of two main bands: the Lahu Na (Black Lahu) and the Lahu Shi (Yellow Lahu), with a much smaller number of Lahu Hpu (White Lahu), La Ba, and Abele. Most Lahu villages are situated above 1,000m (3,280 ft.), in the mountains around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Tak, and Kamphaeng Phet, where "dry soil" rice, corn, and other cash crops are grown.
The lingua franca in the hills is Thai, but many of the other groups can speak a little Lahu. The Lahu are skilled musicians, and their bamboo and gourd flutes feature prominently in their compositions -- flutes are often used by young men to woo the woman of their choice.
Originally animists, the Lahu adopted the worship of a deity called G'ui sha (possibly Tibetan in origin), borrowed the practice of merit-making from Buddhism (Indian or Chinese), and ultimately incorporated Christian (British/Burmese) theology into their belief system. G'ui sha is the Supreme Being who created the universe and rules over all spirits. Spirits inhabit animate and inanimate objects, making them capable of benevolence or evil, with the soul functioning as the spiritual force within people. In addition, they practice a kind of Lahu voodoo, as well as following a messianic tradition. The Lahu warmly welcome foreign visitors.
Mien (Yao) -- There are now estimated to be 45,000 Mien living in Thailand, concentrated in Chiang Rai, Phayao, Lampang, and Nan provinces. The Mien are still numerous in China, as well as in Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Laos. Like the Hmong, tens of thousands of Mien fled to northern Thailand from Vietnam and Laos after the end of the Vietnam War.
Even more than the Hmong, the Mien (the name is thought to come from the Chinese word for "barbarian") are closely connected to their origins in southern China. They incorporated an ancient version of southern Chinese into their own writing and oral language, and many Mien legends, history books, and religious tracts are recorded in this rarely understood script. The Mien people also assimilated ancestor worship and a form of Taoism into their theology, in addition to celebrating their New Year on the same date as the Chinese, using the same lunar calculations.
Mien farmers practice slash-and-burn agriculture but do not rely on opium poppies, choosing instead to cultivate rice (grown in soil, not paddy fields) and maize. The women produce rather elaborate and elegant embroidery, which adorns their baggy pants, while their black jackets have scarlet, fluffy lapels. Their silver work is intricate and highly prized, even by other tribes, particularly the Hmong. Much of Mien religious art appears to be strongly influenced by Chinese design, particularly Taoist (Daoist) motifs, clearly distinguishing it from other tribes' work.
Lisu (Lisaw) -- The Lisu represent less than 5% of all hill-tribe people. They arrived in Chiang Rai province in the 1920s, migrating from nearby Myanmar (Burma), and, in time, some intermarried with the Lahu and ethnic Chinese. The Lisu occupy high ground and, traditionally, grew opium poppies as well as other subsistence crops. Their traditional clothing is vibrant, with brightly colored tunics punctuated by hundreds of silver beads and trinkets. In a region of flamboyant dressers, the Lisu still steal the show.
The Lisu live well-structured lives; everything from birth to courtship to marriage to death is ruled by an orthodox tradition, with much borrowed from the Chinese.
Akha (E-Kaw) -- Of all the tradition-bound tribes, the Akha, accounting for only 10% of all hill-tribe people living in Thailand, have probably maintained the most profound connection with their past. At great events in one's life, the full name (often more than 50 generations of titles) of an Akha is proclaimed, with each name symbolic of a lineage dating back more than 1,000 years. All aspects of life are governed by the Akha Way: an all-encompassing system of myth, ritual, plant cultivation, courtship and marriage, birth, death, dress, and healing.
The first Akha migrated from Myanmar (Burma) to Thailand in the beginning of the 20th century, originally settling in the highlands above the Kok River in Chiang Rai province. Today, they are increasingly migrating to the lower altitudes within China and Indochina in search of more arable land. They are "shifting" cultivators, depending on subsistence crops planted in rotation and raising domestic animals for their livelihood.
The clothing of the Akha is regarded as one of the most attractive of all the hill-tribes. Simple black jackets with skillful embroidery are the everyday attire for men and women alike. Women often also wear stunning silver headdresses, with different subgroups sporting different designs. Akha shoulder bags -- woven with exceptional skill -- are adorned with silver coins and all sorts of baubles and beads.
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