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Map of Thailand

Northern Mountains

Northern Plains

The Rice Bowl

Central Plain

Isaan Heartland

Isaan West

Isaan North, East

Isaan South

Eastern Thailand

Western Thailand


Andaman Sea Coast

Tapestry of roots
Northern headwater mountains and valleys


From: Thailand: Traits and Treasures, National Identity Board, ©2005 by Office of The Permanent Secretary, The Prime Minister’s Office, ISBN 974-9771-52-4



Historically, earliest evidence of culture, especially Thai culture within the boundaries of contemporary Thailand, exists in the intra-mountain valleys which gave rise to virtually independent and semi-independent realms, at times. There, distinct ancient cultural traits evolved which have been handed down to the present.

Situated on the banks of four rivers, or nearby, are centres of historical realms flanked by mountain ranges. To the west is the city of Chiang Mai, now an urban sprawl on the banks of the Ping River and, at close distance, the town of Lamphun situated on the Kuang River, a tributary of the Ping River. In the lower centre of the headwater area, though separated by high mountains, is the city of Lampang on the banks of the Wang River. Upstream on the banks of the Yom River lie the town of Phayao and midstream the town of Phrae. The eastern and largest of the four river basins, the one of the Nan River, has in its upstream section, the town of Nan.

Although geographically somewhat isolated, distinct traditions constitute what is known as the Lan Na Culture, the civilization of the Thai based on the cultivation of millions [lan] of paddy fields [na]. Irrigated agriculture in some valleys has been practised by People’s Irrigation Groups that have operated for close to 800 years, throughout the history of the Lan Na Thai kingdoms and until the present. Prosperity gave rise to local centres of power, adorned with monasteries. In certain locations, older monuments of different cultures exist, most of which were absorbed by the dominant Thai culture. All this was blended with influences from neighbouring regions, resulting in the formation of the Lan Na culture.

At higher altitude, in the perspective from the densely populated and intensively worked valley lands, farther away in the hills and mountains, small ethnic groups call it home. While some such populations including the Lawa or Lua and the M’rabi or “Phi Tong Lueang” [Spiritsof the Yellow Leaves] are indigenous, others have steadily migrated southward into the northern headwater mountains and well beyond. These numerically larger populations include the Karen, H’mong or Meo, Lahu or Mussur, Yao or Mian, Lisu and Akha, each comprising between two and several subgroups that are outwardly and, hence, most easily distinguished by their colourful attire. All this resulted in a symbiosis of lowlanders and uplanders as well as a demographic stratification, in the sheer sense of the word, by levels of altitude.

In the course of unification of the northern mountain area, the centres of the power that built the unified Lan Na Thai Kingdom, was shifted from Chiang Saen to Chiang Rai and, upon the subjugation of the Hariphunchai Kingdom and its centre Lamphun, onward to Chiang Mai. From there, the sphere of influence and supremacy was expanded to include those valleys in which the towns of Lampang, Phayao, Nan and Phrae are located.


The historically oldest settlement is likely the town of Lamphun, once the capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom. Testimonials are the highly esteemed monasteries, edifices and sculptures created in the Dvaravati Period and preserved to this day. Traces of the Dvaravati Culture are also found in small towns such as Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong.

The Mon people, also referred to by the name of Raman, who inhabited some valleys many centuries ago, have blended into the contemporary Thai population, with the sole exception of the dwindling number of Lawa people, some of whom still speak their native vernacular, a variant of the Mon language.

As historically evident, at the site of the present-day town of Lamphun a realm had come into existence that led to the founding of a fortified centre of power named Hariphunchai, in the 7th century.1 This was the capital of the kingdom of the same name for six centuries, ruled by 49 monarchs. The oldest preserved edifice is the square-shaped base of the goldplated Mae Krua Chedi, also known as Chedi Chang Yan, a rare example of the Chiang Saen-style with Sivichayan elements, dating from the end of the 9th century. It is near yet somewhat hidden away from the complex of the monastery named Wat Phra That Hariphunchai Wara Maha Wihan. Its nine-tiered umbrella flanking the centrally placed, gilded chedi, is made of gold. Also, there are five pagodas or chedi built in the Sri Lankan style. The compound of this monastery in its present physical appearance was established in the year 1044 and restored in 1433.

Of similar importance is the monastery named Wat Chammathewi, locally called Wat Ku Kut. It was constructed in 1218 and modeled after a highly venerated reliquary at the ancient site of Polonnaruwa on the island of Sri Lanka. It is deemed the last surviving example of temple architecture in the authentic Dvaravati Style. Its earliest remaining structures are two chedi, one octagonal and the other square, dating from the late 12th to early 13th centuries. The octagonal chedi rises to a gently rounded peak and has a single tier of eight niches, each with one Buddha statue of outstanding beauty. The square chedi rises like a pyramid of five tiers. Each tier has 12 niches containing standing Buddha images which decrease in size, tier by tier, giving the illusion of great height. This chedi is recognized as the work of Mon artisans of the Dvaravati Period. Moreover, this monastery is a testimonial to the reign of Queen Chammathewi of Hariphunchai, around the turn of the 7th century.

To commemorate her coronation, five monasteries were built of which Wat Mahawan Wanaram still exists. It is located in Mueang District of Lamphun Province. A stone inscription dating from the 12th century relates teachings of Lord Buddha in the Mon and Pali languages. It is preserved by the Hariphunchai National Museum in Lamphun Town.


On the western banks of the Mekong River, in modern-day Chiang Rai Province, are two ancient sites. The one situated on a hill named Doi Chiang Miang is dated as of the middle of the 8th century. The other, known as Wiang Hiranya Nakhon Ngoen Yang has remnants of moats enclosing about 70 hectares. It renders evidence of an early power centre which is thought to have been founded in the latter half of the 9th century. Historical records refer to the conquest by Khmer invaders of the town of Yonok Nakhaphan, early in the 10th century, during the reign of the 32rd king of the Singhanawat Dynasty, and to the relief of the town after some 20 years of occupation by the Khmer invaders, upon which its name was changed to Chai Buri.

Given the history of this area, Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen probably existed as settlements by the time when the latter was established as a town, in 1328. It is the oldest town in the North and one of the oldest in present-day Thailand as well. The monastery named Wat Phra That Chom Kitti likely dates from the 10th century. The oldest preserved chedi in the town was built in 1295. It is in the complex of the attractive monastery named Wat Pa Sak. The huge, octagonal chedi of Wat Phra That Chedi Luang was built in 1331; its present shape dates from reconstruction undertaken in 1551. The main monastery of Chiang Khong, Wat Luang, dates from the 13th century.

The realm of Chiang Saen, along with Chiang Khong, was absorbed into the Lan Na Kingdom, in 1334. A major old temple in Chiang Saen called Wat Yia has a bronze Buddha image of the earliest Chiang Saen style, which is considered the most valuable and beautiful of its kind in Thailand. This monastery had a chedi which was struck by lightning in 1494. Cracks on the surface of a Buddha image covered with plaster revealed its core made from jasper, an opaque cryptocrystalline quartz of rare splendour. This image has become famous and highly venerated as the Emerald Buddha. Hence, that old monastery as well as those ever housing this most precious image, in succession, are commonly referred to as Wat Phra Kaeo, a monastery housing the Emerald Buddha.


The centre of power was shifted southward upon the founding of the town of Chiang Rai by King Mengrai, a Thai Yuan ruler, in 1261, and renamed Chiang Tung, in 1262. An older chedi in the precinct of the monastery named Wat Ngam Mueang, situated on the hilltop of Doi Ngam Mueang in Mueang District, constructed in 1318, holds the ashes of the father of King Mengrai. Towards the end of the 14th century, the monastery of Wat Phra Sing and the one later named Wat Phra Kaeo were built, upon the relocation of the Buddha image known as the EmeraldBuddha from its former abode in Chiang Saen. Ancient kilns and terracotta artefacts found in Wiang Ka Long Sub-district of Wiang Pa Pao District in Chiang Rai Province shed light on the long tradition of local arts and crafts.

In the course of expanding his realm toward the west to include the headwater areas of the Ping, Ing and Khok Rivers and their upstream valleys, King Mengrai founded the town of Fang, in 1268. In these valleys, a unique mode of agricultural water supply for paddy production was already practised. Known as mueang fai, this practice was embodied in a distinct Lan Na Law dating from the year 1296. Accordingly, water users themselves have managed their irrigation scheme of channels, mueang, and barrages, fai, over the centuries, to this day. In recent years, this system referred to as “people’s irrigation management” in the hydraulic engineering literature, has been recognized as a viable, even superior alternative to management by agencies. It was adopted for some newly established, modern irrigation systems in several
countries of Asia.


The fall of the Hariphunchai Kingdom was caused by the rise of an eventually much larger and more powerful kingdom known as Lan Na, the first Thai kingdom to straddle valleys and mountains of the North, far and wide. On Hariphunchai territory, King Mengrai had the construction of the town of Wiang Kum Kam completed by 1294. However, the capital of the expanding kingdom had to be relocated onto higher ground so as to safeguard it against seasonal inundation. In 1296, by royal command a new city was founded. This city [ chiang ] was to become the new [ mai ] capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, known as Chiang Mai ever since.

In the vicinity of the new capital city were two monasteries built earlier, which continued to exist to this day, namely, Wat Umong dating from around 1280, the oldest in the region, and Wat Suan Dok, founded in 1283 and famous for its 500 year-old image called Phra Chao Kao Tue. Within the perimeter of the now historical town centre of Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man is the oldest monastery with a Buddha Sila image thought to be from Northern India, created in the 6th century.

Until the conquest by Burmese invaders in 1558, altogether18 kings of the Mengrai Dynasty ruled the Lan Na Kingdom. Monasteries adorning the towns, villages and hills increased in numbers to some 300 by the middle of the 16th century, of which 36 monasteries were situated within the ancient city walls of Chiang Mai Town. One of the most beautiful is Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Wara Wihan, founded in 1451. It is famous for its gilded chedi built in 1451 and its mid-16th century ubosot. Of particular historical significance is Wat Maha Photharam, also known as Wat Chet Yot, modeled after the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodgaya, Northern India, and built in 1455. Its seven-spired pagoda or chedi with beautiful bas-reliefs, created during the Golden Age of the Lan Na Kingdom, is considered the prototype of present-day sacrosanct architecture. This monastery was the venue of the Eighth Buddhist World Council held to revise the Tripitaka and hosted by King Tilokaracha in the year 1477.

In the course of history, ever more territories were incorporated into the Lan Na Kingdom which expanded its supremacy toward the east, including the realms of Phayao, Lampang, Nan and Phrae. Events were recorded through stone inscriptions in fak kham characters such as the one of 1493 at Wat Phra Kaeo in the town of Chiang Rai.


The realm of Lampang, dating from the 7th century, with its ancient capital founded late in the 7th century and expanded early in the 8th century, became part of the Lan Na Kingdom in 1301. At the site of an ancient fortress to the south of Lampang Town, dating from the 8th century, the walled monastery of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang was built in the 11th century. It is deemed one of the highlights of the period art throughout Southeast Asia. Standing on a hillock in rural environs, this monastery is located in Lampang Luang Sub-district of Ko Kha District, Lampang Province.

Among the monasteries in present-day Lampang City is Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao Suchadaram Wara Wihan. There, the Buddha image known as the Emerald Buddha was enshrined during the years 1436 until 1468, after it had been taken from its abode in Chiang Rai Town and before it was moved to Chiang Mai. The monastery has a chedi which serves as a reliquary for a hair of the Buddha. This edifice is decorated with shingles made from copper and coated with pure gold, an artefact known in Thai as changko. Other outstanding examples of the Lan Na style include two monasteries, one in the town and another located in a rural setting. Wat Sela Rattana Papphataram, also known as Wat Lai Hin Kaew Chang Phueak or Wat Lai Hin Luang Kaeo Chang Yuen, in Lai Hin Sub-district of Ko Kha District, was founded in the 13th century. The design and ornamentation of its vihara were created by artisans from Chiang Tung, the name by which Chiang Rai was known in that period. The magnificent mural paintings match the superb architectural design, embellished by stucco ornaments in front of the vihara which are considered some of the best in the North. In its very old library palm leaf manuscripts are preserved, which were manufactured and written more than 500 years ago. The ‘gem’ that is Wat Pong Yang Kok exemplifies the sacrosanct, early architectural style of Lan Na at its best. The ensemble of its airy vihara with its teak poles underpinning the tiled roof and its splendid interior, featuring blossoms and gilded fowl as well as mandalas and bodhi tree frescoes, is enchanting. That very old wooden vihara was built during the reign of Queen Chammathewi of Hariphunchai, purportedly in the year 710. This most ancient Buddhist sanctuary is located in Pong Yang Kok Sub-district of Hang Chat District.


An ancient settlement preceded the re-establishment, in 1096, of Phayao as the capital of a small kingdom. It has more stone inscriptions than found anywhere else in Lan Na, most of them dating from the 12th –14th centuries, of which 110 such historical documents are preserved at Wat Si Khom Kham alone, which was built in the 12th century. This monastery houses a Buddha image which was created over a span of time of four decades, from late in the 15th to early in the 16th century. It is deemed the largest image in Northern Thailand, which gave the monastery its alternative name of Wat Phra Chao Ton Luang.

In the Phayao Realm, a town known by the name of Wiang Ta Wang Tong, or else called WiangPratu Chai, prospered in the late 15th century and early 16th century. To this day, solely the monastery of Wat Li, located in Mueang District, has remained with a chedi in the Lan Na style and an inscription dating its foundation as of the year 1495. Three more, equally important inscriptions at Wat Phra Koet, Wat Sipsong Hong and Wat Suwannaram date from the years1513 to 1515. The monastery called Wat Pa Daeng Bunnak, built around the turn of the 16th century, is considered the first one where the merit-making ritual known as salakpat has been practised. Upon the long reign of Phaya Ngam Mueang (1258-1298), the ninth king of the Lawa Chang Racha royal family, Phayao became part of the Lan Na Kingdom.


The origin of the town and realm of Nan is traced back to the ancient settlement of Ban Pua. There, all that has remained to the present are some chedi built on rectangular, four-tiered bases during the reign of Queen Chammathewi of Hariphunchai, at the turn of the 7th century, on which Buddha statues are placed that blend Lan Na, Lan Chang and Nan artistic features. These ancient edifices are situated in the monastery named Wat Phaya Wat in Du Tai Sub-district of Mueang District.

Another very old monastery is Wat Suan Tan, founded around the year 1230 and located in Mueang District. It has an old, beautifully shaped chedi with gateways pointing to the four quarters and houses in its vihara a huge bronze Buddha statue cast in 1450 and named Phra Chao Thong Thip.

The town of Nan, as it exists today, was founded in the year 1368, at a site not far from the site of the ancient town of Nan, where the monastery of Wat Phra That Chae Haeng had been built in 1355. Remnants of the city wall built in 1426 are still in place. By then, the Nan Realm had become part of the Lan Na Kingdom. The monastery of Wat Phra That Chang Kham Wara Wihan, located in Mueang district, was built in 1406 and formerly known as Wat Luang or Wat Luang Klang Wiang. In 1955, a 145-centimetre tall walking Buddha image made of pure gold was discovered, after the plaster covering the image had cracked. An inscription in that monastery dated 1548 relates, in Lan Na characters, the history of Nan as an independent kingdom during the 13th and 14th centuries. Unique is the structure of the monastery named Wat Phumin, situated in Mueang District. Its centrepiece is a single building with four porticos encompassing the ubosot and vihara as well as the central chedi. In the main hall, four Buddha statues are placed back-toback. It was built around the year 1585 and restored late in the Fourth Reign [1851-1868]. By then, its walls were decorated with mural paintings which depict Buddhist legends as well as local folklore.


Situated on the banks of the Yom River, in its mid-stream section, the ancient town called Mueang Phon Nakhon was founded in the year 828. Legend has it that the monastery of Wat Phra That Si Don Kham, locally called Wat Huai O and situated in Huai O Sub-district of Long District, was founded in the 6th century when the land was part of the Hariphunchai Kingdom.

Early in the town’s history its name was changed to Phrae. An octagonal chedi in the Chiang Saen style with the Buddha image called Phra Chao Than Chai, situated on top of the nearby hill of Doi Kosiyatachak, is thought to signify the founding of Phrae. Its city wall is more than 1,100 years old, shaped like a conch and of impressive proportions, with a height of seven metres, a width of 15 metres and a length of 4,000 metres, complete with four fortresses that served as gates, and surrounded by a 20-metre wide moat. As evident from preserved monuments the town was built in the 12th century. One such historical precinct is Wat Luang in Mueang District. Almost as old is Wat Phra That Cho Hae in Cho Hae Sub-district of Mueang District, built during the years 1336 and 1338. In its Chiang Saen-style chedi a relic of the Buddha is enshrined. It was built of brick and covered with brass shingles.


How precarious the situation was for the Lan Na Kingdom, wedged between emerging neighbouring powers, one might sense from the fact that the town of Lamphun, in close vicinity of the city of Chiang Mai, underwent major reinforcement of its fortification. In 1552, Lamphun was reconstructed complete with a city pillar, lak mueang, walls with a three-metre high stone base topped by bricks shaped like bodhi tree leaves, six gates and a moat.

Soon after, in 1556 the city of Chiang Mai, capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, was conquered by Burmese invaders who stayed to rule supreme until 1774. The Lan Na Kingdom continued to exist as a vassal territory of Burma. In the same year, the city of Lampang and its realm fell to the Burmese invaders. By 1558, the Burmese had occupied the principality of Nan and held it until 1786. At last, the Burmese seized Chiang Saen in 1588 and held it until 1804.

During two centuries of Burmese supremacy, the Lan Na culture withstood the onslaught. The city of Chiang Mai served as the centre of the vassal territory. Buddhist monasteries were established such as the unique monastery of Wat Phumin in Nan, built around the year 1585 and one of the most beautiful in Northern Thailand, with its vihara featuring splendid murals, and Wat Phra Phuttha Bat Tak Pha of Lamphun, built in 1657. In the 17th century, the beautiful Ku Chao Ya Suttha was created, an ornamental wall at the monastery named Wat Khok Kaeo in Na Kaeo Sub-district of Ko Kha District in Lampang Province. A stone inscription in fak kham characters at Wat Chiang Man of Chiang Mai City, dated 1681, tells of the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296. A group of Thai Yai, also known as Shan, who had settled in Phayao Town, built Wat Nantaram, also called Wat Chong Ka or Wat Chong Nuea. Another monastery in Phayao, Wat Si Khom Kham constructed in the Lan Na style, in 1761, houses the image named Phra Chao Ton Luang, the biggest of its kind in the former Lan Na Kingdom.


With the resurrection of the Kingdom of Siam, the Burmese occupation of territories once forming the Lan Na Kingdom was brought to an end. Compelled by rebellion and uprising, and finally defeated on the battlefield, the Burmese occupants withdrew from Chiang Mai in 1774 and from Nan in 1786. Burmese forces were driven out of Lampang in 1787 and ultimately out of Chiang Saen, which was razed to the ground in 1804, to be rebuilt only in 1874. The necessity of safeguarding against retaliation has remained evident from the construction of the big Amok Fort of Lampang, built in 1807 and preserved almost intact.

The various territories were brought under the suzerainty of Siam, and large-scale reconstruction of the war-ravaged areas began. Nan, for example, became a Siamese vassal state in 1788. Wat Phumin, its famous monastery, was restored in 1867 and chosen to house four large Sukhothai-style Buddha statues. The governor’s residence in Phrae, built in 1892, is one of the most splendid period-buildings in Thailand. Its design blends Thai style with European features. Nan was fully integrated into Siam in the year 1931, shortly thereafter followed by Chiang Mai in 1939.


Wars waged to gain or regain control over the northern valleys, foremost, had caused  devastation and, worst of all, decimated the population, time and again. In periods of peace, reconstruction of settlements and rehabilitation of the economy were high priorities. To secure the required human resources, entire population groups were settled in the lands of the former Lan Na Kingdom.

Throughout the history of the Lan Na Kingdom, some of the many ethnic Thai groups in Mainland Southeast Asia settled in particular locations. Examples are the Thai Yuan, the group to which King Mengrai himself belonged, and the Thai Lue. To this day, Thai Yuan people in Mae Chaem District of Chiang Mai Province have upheld their cultural heritage such as producing the pha tin chok, their homespun and hand-woven cotton fabric with rhombic design. Thai Lue hailing from Sip Song Pan Na, a region inhabited by native Thai people in today’s Yunnan Province of China, settled in the Lan Na Kingdom, there in locations of the present-day provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, Nan and Phayao. During the two centuries of Burmese occupation especially groups of ethnic Thai from Upper Burma known as Thai Yai or Shan settled in the territory of the Lan Na Thai, there in areas such as around Chiang Mai and Phayao.

Beginning with the incorporation into Siam and, then, modern Thailand, the need for human resources triggered the settling of more of the closely related ethnic Thai groups. They include Thai Lue, now at home in Chiang Rai Province, at Ban Si Don Chai in Chiang Khong District; in Nan Province, at Nong Bua; in Phayao Province, and in Lampang Province, in Kluai Phae Sub-district of Mueang District and Mae Tha District. Thai Yong settled in large numbers in the provinces of Lamphun and Chiang Mai. Nowadays, the descendants of the Yong immigrants make up 80 percent of the population of Lamphun. They are well-known for their skills in handicrafts and artisanship. Where the Thai Yong live, the Thai Khoen are not far. The Thai Khoen have expertise in operating terraced agriculture. The Thai Phuan, settling in communities in Phrae Province, are descendants of immigrants from areas in present-day Laos. The large population of Thai Won in Nan Province, who are farmers settling along the Nan River, are said to hail from areas to the east of the Mekong River.

In the 1950s, a large group of Chinese having sided with the Kuomintang, the nationalists defeated by the communists, also called Haw, were granted refuge in the area of Mae Salong, in the present-day sub-districts of Mae Salong Nai and Mae Salong Nok of Mae Fa Luang District in Chiang Rai Province. Recently, that area was renamed Santi Khiri. Nearby is the Doi Tung Royal Villa, erstwhile residence of H.R.H. the Princess Mother.

By moving into the said hill and mountain area, those Chinese refugees emulated how the native people in the hills and mountains of Mainland Southeast Asia have been advancing their settlements in northsouth direction, over the centuries. The scattered distribution of these indigenous people, though increasingly also in the valleys, is best distinguished and illustrated with a view to their distinctive attire. The H’mong, also called Miao or Meo, Lisu and Karen formed clusters of settlements in Mae Taeng District, the Lisu and Karen around Doi Chiang Dao in Chiang Dao District, and the Mian, also known as Yao, as well as Karen, Lahu and Lisu around the town of Fang, their trading centre, all these locations in Chiang Mai Province. Akha settlements, typically situated on mountain ridges, are concentrated in Mae Suai and Wiang Pa Pao districts of Chiang Rai Province. The latter district is also home to Lisu. Groups of Mian or Yao, settled in villages on mountain ridges some 50 years ago, have earned themselves a reputation as hard-working farmers successfully producing rice, corn and potatoes, supplemented by animal husbandry such as raising horses, pigs and chicken.

The integration of the people of the hills into the mainstream society and economy results from the manifold initiatives and interventions by H. M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, embodied in the ventures of the Royal Development Study Centre at Huai Hong Khrai in Doi Saket District and various royal projects, all located in Chiang Mai Province. One such project is the Royal Agricultural Station at Doi Ang Khang in the high-mountain area of Mae Sun and Mon Pin Sub-districts of Fang District, where cool-climate fruit and flower species were introduced to substitute for the earlier, customary poppy cropping. The Doi Inthanon Royal Project in Huai Luang Sub-district of Chom Thong District promotes vegetable and flower cultivation. Similar crops are grown at the Huai Phak Phai Royal Project, also known as Thung Roeng, at Ban Mae Ha in Ban Pong Sub-district of Hang Dong District. Likewise, the Huai Luek Royal Project in Ping Khong Sub-district of Chiang Dao District introduced the production of vegetables and fruits. The Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, situated along the Mae Rim – Samoeng Road, is dedicated to research and conservation. Through experimentation, technology transfer, demonstration, and systematic introduction of feasible, alternative field and tree cropping, substitutes for poppy cultivation have been accepted and adopted. As a result, the once notorious Golden Triangle was transformed from a hotbed of the illicit production of drugs as well as related dealing and wheeling into an area of ecologically sound, innovative agriculture. Moreover, it has become a prime tourism destination, owing to the scenic setting at such spots as Sam Liam Thong Kham at Ban Sop Ruak, where the three countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, near Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai Province.

Lesser known ethnic groups, native to the hills and mountains, include the Lu’a, also known as Lawa, settled in the foothills. Examples are the districts of Wiang Nong Long and Pa Sang in Lamphun Province and of Ban Mae Hia as well as Suthep sub-districts of Mueang District in Chiang Mai Province. The language of the Lu’a or Lawa belongs to the Austro-Asiatic group of Mon-Khmer languages, indicating a distant relationship with the historical regional centre of Lawo, the former capital city of a Dvaravati Kingdom and present-day Lop Buri City in Central Thailand. In the mountains of Nan Province, small groups of Khamu and Khin, also called Khin and sometimes identified as Lawa, have survived. They, too, speak languages of Mon-Khmer affinity. The Khin or Lawa live in villages at high altitude, most of them in Chaloem Phra Kiat District, and fewer in the districts of Bo Kluea, Pua, Thung Chang and Chiang Klang. The Khamu are at home, for the last 200 years, in the border area of Thailand and Laos. The group of Khamu living in Thailand is known as Kha Khwaen; their villages are in the northernmost districts of Nan Province. The truly most exotic ethnic group is that of the M’ra Bri, also referred to as M’rabi or M’labi yet commonly known as the Phi Tong Lueang, the Spirits of the Yellow Leaves. Their number in remote, forested areas of Wiang Sa and Ban Luang districts in Nan Province was estimated at about 100 members, and in Song District of Phrae Province at about 40 members. The M’rabi are forest nomads who rest in makeshift shelters roofed with banana leaves. As soon as these leaves dry up, turn yellow and begin to disintegrate, such shelter would become useless and, therefore, be abandoned. Hence, they are referred to as the Spirits of the Yellow Leaves.

The chequered tapestry of ethnic groups, their topographical spread across valleys, hills and mountains, the physical stratification of their settlements and land base for productive activities by altitude, their cultural heritage and its preservation have brought about and kept alive a
rich diversity. It is no wonder, after all, that the concentration of ethnic diversity that is  encountered in both the lowlands and the uplands, within a relatively small geographical area, and the great variety of locally created artefacts, in particular, have stimulated interest and admiration by the people of Thailand, on the whole, and visitors from abroad alike.

As stated in a document published by the Office of the National Culture Commission, “all these ethnic groups are fully assimilated and consider themselves Thais.”

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.


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