The not so hidden Hill Tribes of Southeast Asia

The Hilltribes populations of Southeast Asia are some of the most hardworking, laboring cultures of the region (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos). Often overlooked by NGO’s and governmental aid agencies due to their legal status, the Hilltribe communities are instrumental and responsible for the cultivation and harvesting of much of the agriculture in the entire Mekong region. Many of them working as rice farmers in the region, they have brought their generational knowledge and agricultural skills to the US where there are several thriving Hmong and Mien owned farms today. 

In the mountains of Thailand are seven monumental tribes: whose existence has held great significance. After cultivating the various lands around the Mekong for over a hundred years, these seven tribes settled in these mountains and made the Thailand mountainside their homes.

Some of the seven Hill tribes of Thailand mountains include the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lisu, and Paluang.

  • Hmong community; come from various regions in Asia as a subgroup of the Miao. The Hmong reside in the hillside of Vietnam, Laos, and China. They contain other subgroups which one can differentiate using their cultural colors - green and white and each speak different dialects. Staple dishes are rice, meat, and varying soups. 
  • Akha community; initially residing in Yunnan province in China, but migrated to Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand in the late 20th Century. Due to civil war in Myanmar and Laos, they further resettled in Thailand, where they live today. Akha people are skilled farmers who raise livestock and farm various crops.
  • Lahu community: Much of the community still resides in China, however, have also migrated toThailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Colors are also used to differentiate cultural differences between the tribesRice plays an important role in the dishes they create.
  • Karen community: Karen tribes cultural garbes has been widely known in Western culture, often appropriated and exploited by larger travel companies because of the distinctive feature of the cultural garb women wear featuring brass coil necklaces to elongate their necks. They are also known for migrating around Myanmar before calling Thailand home. Catholicism is widely practiced by the tribe due to the influence of Italian missionaries. 
  • Yao/ Mien community:  The largest recorded population among the seven hill tribes (about 9 million). They reside and migrate throughout the Yunnan province, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The tribe relies on rice farming and hunting for their economy. 
  • Lisu & Palaung community: Both tribes have resettled from Tibet to Thailand and Myanmar due to poltiical and economic pressures from the recent Chinese claim over Tibet.

Hilltribe communities face the danger of exploitation and both physical and cultural genocide. Unfortunately, tourist exploitation has been a large commodity for governments hosting the hill tribes where many of the community are held in attraction camps and used for tours as a “look into the past.” Their craftsmanship creates revenue for the government systems in which they live and fair trade is oftentimes nonexistent- continuing the cycle of poverty. These communities are left in poverty, without any aid from the government systems, and are denied their basic human rights to live a safe and healthy life without fear of violence and exploitation. 

Although, much of their modern day livelihood is dependent on the tourism, this also puts them at risk of exploitation or trafficking. They operate independently, primarily without any aid from the governments or outside influence. Their insular communities are often controversial as many of them were recruited as allies to the United States during the late 1960s. Due to various roles in their occupancy alongside the Americans through the CIA, many of the hill tribes tend to shy away from the public eye. Thankfully, there are some organizations like Courageous Kitchen and Asylum Access Thailand, who serves as advocates on the legal and education side to provide support for vulnerable populations who face constant unwarranted persecution. 

At Tuk Tuk Box it's important for us to honor the past, but shed new light on an often harrowing experience. We highlight their significance because they are among the lesser known ethnic groups who are often being forgotten and in fear of erasure. We believe their cultural practices are crucial to the anthropologic advancement of Southeast Asians across the globe, so this month we’re highlighting some of our amazing friends from the hill tribe diaspora.

As always, our monthly subscribers receive special gifts and goodies from artisans and small businesses along with their curated snacks. In this box you’ll find Mien hot sauce from a California based small business, a Hmong coloring book, a few of our favorite hill tribe recipes, and last but not least spicy noodles to slurp while you're reading about all of our friends below. 

We hope you enjoy learning more from our hill tribe community!

Chef Yia Vang 

Fahm Saelee: Rem Bujo

Lee's Berries

Houa Lee: Cut From the Culture 

Mak & Grille: Hot Sauce 

To Learn about the intricate designs of Paj Ntaub found in this months coloring book visit: