For centuries, the mysterious region of South East Asia known as the Golden Triangle has captivated many. The early 20th century saw a surge in the infamous tabloid tales of being the world’s second largest home and traffic to opium and heroin. Fast forward to today, the Western imagination is transfixed by the six culturally distinct people occupying this region – Akha, Karen, Lisu, Hmong, Lahu and Mien – also commonly (and loosely) referred to as the hill tribes.
The Golden Triangle once knew no boundaries. The remote mountainous villages were a meeting trade point where India, Tibet, China and Mongolia set passage to access the rest of South East Asia. Diversity of cultures was therefore a norm. What is intriguing though is how the many cultures in this region have managed to stand the test of time, preserving age old cultures, languages and dress.
Recently though, the Golden triangle has become a home to the displaced people of South East Asia. With no country to solely call their own, this region between Laos, Burma and Thailand is even more mysterious as – despite the hostility of the environment and outside influences – the people fight to maintain and continue their distinct ways.
For some it is pottery making and basket weaving , others silver smelting and for most if not all, it is the intricacy of their clothes. Commonly handmade from either cotton or hemp, and hand dyed from natural plant material, it is impossible not to admire the thought and detail each tribe boasts of; never loosing sight of their ancient ways, theirs is a story told one stitch at a time.
The Akha People
The 20th century saw the Akha people migrate from Yunnan to South East Asia, with the majority settling in Burma. With the Burmese disputes, they then headed to the Golden Triangle.
The Akha traditional costume consists of homespun cotton, hand dyed in natural indigo. What really sets them apart is their flamboyant headdress.
Older Akha woman. The older one gets, the fancier the headdress. In the olden days and still practiced today, silver was a symbol of wealth. More silver meant a higher ranking within the community.
Images by Tim Draper
The Mien (Yao) People
Originally from China, the Mien people had migrated to Laos, where disputes later forced them to flee to the Thai/Laos border. They recently received refugee (cringe at the term) status from the Thai government while the third largest group of Mien people relocated to the U.S upon government sponsorship.
They wear fine blue clothing made from indigo, a trademark red scarf and embroidered turbans.
The Karen People
Perhaps the oldest group of people to have reached the Golden Triangle are the Karen people. They arrived in this region in the 17th century, and have been known to be the pioneers of the rice terrains. Living in harmony with nature is a skill that they have mastered.
In Thailand, the Karen people are a part of the sub ethic group known as the Palaung. The other sub group is known as the Padaung – these are the ‘long neck’ people, who only started migrating to Thailand only about 15 years ago.
Padaung (Kayan) Women
The Kayan women adorn themselves with brass neck rings which in time, give an illusion of a head hovering over an elongated golden neck – a beauty trademark. The women start wearing neck rings from as early as 2 years old, with a ring or two added each year. By the time they are in their 20’s, the rings can weigh as much as 25 pounds.
Contrary to popular believe, the women are not forced to wear neck rings, it is indeed a fascinating, futuristic sight seeing Kayan women with neck rings wear modern clothes.
(Images by: Jorgen Bisch, 1962)
The Hmong People
The Hmong people are a sub group of the Miao people of China. After the great migration in the 18th century, quite a fair number had found a new home in Laos. However, from 1975, or post the Laos disputes, most settled in the northern Thai mountains. The vibrant Hmong colors are quite impossible to miss.
Images by Christian Girault
The Lisu People
The Lisu people are a nomadic people of Tibetan descendant. Traditionally slash and burn farmers, they reside in scattered homesteads across the hills of the Golden Triangle. The women play with textiles, layering beautiful colors and patchwork to make perhaps, the most vibrant outfits in the region.
The Lahu People
Initially from Tibet, the Lahu people migrated to Yunna, China and towards the mid 1800’s they moved further south to the hills of Thailand. There are different sub ethnic groups of the Lahu people and the Golden Triangle is home to both the Black and Yellow Lahu, with the Yellow Lahu making up atleast 75% of the group.
Images by Eric Lafforgue
There you have it, the six major tribes occupying the whimsical Thai hills, carrying forth ancient traditions.
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