One of Northern Thailand’s most distinctive and colourful ‘hill-tribes’ and one of the ethnic groups you’re most likely to come across in that part of the kingdom are the Lisu, or Lisaw in Thai.
They inhabit a wide swathe of the mountainous northwest and are most populous in Mae Hong Song province, but also well established in northern Chiang Mai province in the Chiang Dao/Tha Ton areas and up towards Chiang Rai’s Doi Mae Salong. Lisu settlements are also found as far south as Umphang district in Tak province, though we’re not certain whether that was through ‘natural’ migration or government relocation. (Chiang Dao and Mae Hong Son clans actually speak different dialects and can on occasions be quite disparaging about each other.)
The Lisu are part of the larger Sino-Tibetan ethnic family and are thought to have originated in northwestern Yunnan and the Tibetan Plateau before migrating southeast into, initially, southern Yunnan, where a large population still exists and then northern Thailand in more recent times. Some populations can still be found in Burma’s Shan state but Lisu villages are scarce in Laos.
While most Lisu men now wear Western-style clothing, the women are particularly fond of their traditional dress and in villages around Pai, Soppong and the Mae Hong Son markets you’ll still see even teenage Lisu girls in full traditional costume. Many Lisus still practise animism, though you’ll see Buddhist Lisu temples near Pai for instance and some, as with their Lahu cousins, have converted to Christianity.
Generally speaking, Lisus appear to be more commercially-minded than some other groups and Lisu handicrafts and vendors are a common sight along roadsides and markets across the area.
Villages with good road access (and access to tourists), such as those around Pai or Soppong, also appear relatively prosperous though remoter settlements can be very poor. Lisu girls have a reputation for being particularly beautiful — rather a cursed gift unfortunately since many of the girls end up in Chiang Mai’s go-go bars.
Many tours and trekking itineraries in the region include stays at Lisu villages while the most easily visited, yet relatively traditional villages, are those around Soppong (Pang Mapha).
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 27th February, 2017.