For over 700 years Chiang Mai’s enjoyed a notorious existence as a bustling river port. With its central location between Thailand, China and Burma, it grew from small origins into a major goods port. Renown for the Golden Triangle and the smuggling of opium, Chiang Mai has also been pivotal in the supply of Thailand’s textiles, precious metals and handicrafts.
In the 13th century, Chiang Mai was the capital of the feudal Lanna Kingdom, set in a luscious valley donating the name of ‘a million rice fields’. Lanna was founded by Yunnanese (China) Tai’s, who spoke ‘Tai’, a Sino-Tibetan language. By the 15th century, Lanna controlled Northern Thailand, North Eastern Laos, Eastern Burma and parts of Yunnan.
Lanna was consistently attacked by Burma until 1796 when King Taksin reclaimed the city for Siam. There was a speedy regeneration of Chiang Mai’s culto-economic and socio-political significance, which increased colonisers’ interest. The ensuing corruptive land grab forced the Bangkok based government to intervene and regain control. Chiang Mai has never looked back.
The Hill Tribes:
As Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai is a perfect stepping stone to view Northern Thailand’s spectacular scenery, access Laos and Burma, or travel the Mekong to China. It is a brilliant location to see diverse ethnic communities like the Karen, Akha, Hmong or the Lahu hill tribes who inhabit remote upland areas.
The Hmong are the second largest hill tribe and have a fiercely independent, nomadic nature. Originating in South Asia’s mountainous regions, they descended from the Miao – existing since the 3rd millenniumBC. The Hmong can be subcategorised e.g. the White (Hmong Der), the Flower (Hmong Hoa) and the Green (Hmong Leng/Njua), whose languages, traditions and culture all vary.
Inhabiting Chiang Mai for four centuries, the Hmong believe in self-determination, uniting with communist rebels (1970’s) to fight the Pathet-Lao, during the Laotian Civil War. In spite of this warrior streak the Hmong are a deeply spiritual people who live off the land, sustainably supported through their beautiful handicrafts, especially embroidery and batiks.
The Hmong live in flat houses, in the centre of which lies a large fire where the daily meal is cooked. Theirs is a patrilinial society where men complete most of the work. At the day’s culmination the entire clan congregates around a fire for a session of folklore and tradition-telling like the creation of world and its hidden realities, with jokes, riddles and music.
In the late 1800’s the Lahu migrated to Chiang Mai staying in close proximity to Burma, from Tibet via Yunnan. Lahu means tiger- baker/hunter and they excel at hunting and herbal medicinal knowledge.
They can be divided into 5 categories – recognisable by dress. The most populous (75%) are the Black Lahu, distinguished through black clothes covered in bold yet delicate embroidery. Women don black and red jackets whilst the men wear baggy blue trousers. Their main income is from vegetable cultivation as well as tea and coffee cultivation. This is supplemented by outstanding wooden crafts such as cross bows, musical instruments, woven baskets and cloth, with striking embroidery and batiks.
The Lahu inhabit stilted, hard wood/bamboo, partitioned houses with thatched roofs with a ladder into the central room where the family fire is.
Being animist, Buddhist and Christian, the Lahu believe in the soul, household and other spirits as well as a ‘God’ like being, tended by village priests. During their New Year Festival Kin Wo,
Lahu villagers sacrifice pigs daily to appease ghosts, singing and dancing all day and night (without alcohol!).
Find Out More:
Orientxplorer offers conservation trips to the Hmong village of Ban Mae Sa Mai, the largest Hmong village in Chiang Mai. During your trip to the village you will get the opportunity to take part in a unique reforestation project, run by the villagers, helping to rejuvenate the traditional habitat and highlights how groups such as the Hmong are managing to mix there cultural traditions with modern needs. A percentage of funds from this tour goes directly to the support and upkeep of the village nursery. To learn more about the reforestation project and how it is benefiting the local community, please click here.
To see the Lahu, OrientXplorer has recently created another specialised trip to a La Hu Hill Tribe Homestay situated in a remote mountain region close to the Burmese border. The village homestay provides a unique opportunity to learn about traditional culture as well as trek to unseen mountain summits and mesmerizing waterfalls. Again a percentage of the profits from this tour go direct to the Lahu village community.