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Hill-tribes, highlanders or montagnards in Southeast Asia

Hill-tribes in Southeast Asia.

You’ll have me across the term ‘hill-tribe’ in many of our Southeast Asia tour pages, or indeed those of most other operators running tours in the region, or for that matter in most of the relevant guidebooks you’ll find, and refers to the minority ethnic groups inhabiting the mountainous areas of northern Thailand,  Laos, Vietnam, Burma and southern China. Thailand’s main groups are the Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Karen and Yao whilst in Laos, Hmong predominate with Akha in the far northwest. Vietnam is home to, amongst other groups, several Hmong, Dzao and Tai clans classified by the predominate colour of their traditional clothing whilst eastern and northeastern Burma hosts a huge number of ethnic minority hill peoples including the Pa-O, Danu and Palaung near Inle Lake, Akha, Lahu, Wa, Enn and so-on in the Kengtung region and the famous Padaung, (long-neck Karen), who’s home is in Kayah State bordering Thailand’s Mae Hong Son.

Hmong woman Doi Pui, Thailand
Hmong woman Doi Pui, Thailand

Many of these ethnic groups, well particularly the women, still wear their colourful traditional costumes and many still lead very traditional life styles. Their origins are mixed: some groups belonging to the Mon Khmer ethnic family such as the Palaung and Wa have lived in Southeast Asia for a very long time whilst other tribes of Sino-Tibetan origin are recent arrivals from Southwestern China such as Akha, Lisu, Lahu and so-on whilst the Karen belong, apparently, to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group. Hikes to, visits to and even overnight home-stays in their mountain villages are a highlight on most tours to these regions and as long as the visit is carried out in a responsible manner then it can be a beneficial exchange for all parties.

Visit to a Paluang village school near Kalaw, Burma
Visit to a Paluang village school near Kalaw, Burma

Most villages welcome the chance of some increased income from selling handicrafts or having overnight guests and of course there’s generally a possibility to make donations to village schools or communal facilities and so-on. Aside from the most accessible and perhaps ‘over-visited’ villages locals are often genuinely interested in their visitors’ origin and culture so ideally, two-way interactions occur. (We may have mentioned the Paduang women, with their brass neck rings, absolute fascination when one of our visitors revealed her pierced tongue; a great and hilarious exchange!)

Tony explaining the rules of cricket to some bewildered Black Hmong women near Sapa
Tony explaining the rules of cricket to some bewildered Black Hmong women near Sapa

And below, safety in numbers, when faced with a 2m cobra across our path on the same trek near Sapa, north Vietnam.

Stick together guys!
Stick together guys!

For the visitors, village stops provide a framework for hill treks, gives plenty of opportunities for exotic holiday photos but above all a chance to discover these peoples and cultures that are sadly but inevitably not going to be around for a lot longer.

Hill-tribes in Southeast Asia. Lahu man trying a few shots of his own
Lahu man trying a few shots of his own

Anyway, this lengthy preamble brings us on to the original point of the post which was the correct name for these minority groups. It had been recently pointed out to us that ‘hill-tribe’ was not a very pc term! Apparently we should be using ‘highlanders’ instead though we can’t get visions of kilts out of our heads. The French referred to the mountain-dwelling groups of Indochina as ‘Montagnards’ – a fairly logical ‘people of the mountains’ although a. it’s French and we’re not and b. it also refers to the ethnic Malay and Mon-Khmer groups inhabiting the Central Highlands and who probably only migrated to up-land regions after being pushed out of lower valleys by later waves of migration anyway and are not hill-tribes in the same sense as the Sino-Tibetan groups further north who migrated from one mountainous region to another.

Hill-tribes in Southeast Asia. Lisu girls selling a few home-made nick knacks on the roadside near Mae Salong.
Lisu girls selling a few home-made nick-knacks on the roadside near Mae Salong.

We’re not convinced as to just how pejorative or ‘un-pc’ the term hill-tribe is though we’re sure someone will enlighten us, we’re not too keen on the alternatives and frankly we’re a bit lazy to go through our entire website removing the term so we’d like to point out we aware of the issue but for now we’re sticking to hill-tribes in Southeast Asia.

Cheers!