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The Lisu

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. The Lisu Hill Tribe of Northern Thailand

The Lisu people of northern Thailand likely originated in Eastern Tibet and then migrated to China from there.  They arrived in Thailand via China around 100 years ago. Currently there are around 30,000 Lisu living throughout northern Thailand in areas of altitude that reach 1,000 meters or higher.

There are two types of Lisu ethnic subgroups.  There are the Flowery Lisu and the Black Lisu.  The most prominent variety of Lisu in northern Thailand is the Flowery Lisu.

The Lisu are well known as the individualists of the hill tribes.  They are unique, adaptable, and widely believed to be the most beautiful of the Thailand’s hill tribes. The women are known for wearing brightly colored clothing of blue and green.  The women also are known to wear their tunics split up to the waist, with a black belt, and matching brightly colored blue or green pants. There are tons of embroidered details included in their garments.  The embroidery typically consists of bands of blue, yellow, and red.  Long hair is typically worn tied in the back.

The Lisu men are known to wear simple attire of green, pink, or yellow loose fitting pants. They men also wear open blue jackets.

During the annual New Year celebration in January the Lisu are known to wear extravagant clothing that speaks of wealth and class. They wear brightly colored hats with a multitude of pom-poms and streamers as well as waistcoats and intricately fashioned belts made out of silver.

The Lisu grow corn, rice, and other vegetables for sustenance.  They also are known to grow and sell opium and accumulate income from the sale of domesticated livestock.  The Lisu have become widely renowned for selling the best opium of all the hill tribes.  Due to Thailand’s increasingly strict enforcement of anti opium laws, the Lisu, like many other hill tribes have to develop new crops to supplement their income.  The opium addiction rate among the Lisu is greatly on the decline and they seem to be having no problems adjusting to their new forms of income.

In addition to cultivating new crops to supplement income the Lisu have many other talents that help to replace lost revenue from the dying opium trade. The Lisu women are talented at embroidery which provides some opportunity for income.  In addition to this the men are known to make a variety of skilled crafts including musical instruments, animal traps, crossbows, and a variety of other types of wood, bamboo, and rattan crafts.


The homes of the Lisu are built on the ground with natural dirt floors and bamboo walls. The families are typically extended versus nuclear, setting them apart from many of the other hill tribes in the area.  They prefer to settle at the tops of mountains as near as possible to a local water source.  Their homes always have one door and face the mountain on which they live.

The Lisu are very technologically advanced having found ways to pipe indoor plumbing from the nearest water source through the use of a large bamboo pipe in most of their villages.  Every home has a family altar within the communal area of the home. There are often several bedrooms girls who have reached maturity are given a private bedroom for entertaining guests.

The Lisu are animists and ancestor worshipers. They celebrate their New Year festival at the same time as the Chinese, having borrowed much of their spiritual practice from China during their long stay in the area.  The Lisu are one of the most spiritual of all of the hilltribes of Northern Thailand.  Their practicing shamans have a lot of authority and control within the tribe. There are altars within each home and each village has a spirit house.  Though they are a uniquely strong tribe there is no secular leader within the village.  Though rare, some of the Lisu have converted to Christianity after coming in contact with Western Missionaries.

The Lisu tribe is made of several different clans.  The relationships are centered on the family and the tribe as a whole. Monogamy and clan exogamy are common practices within the tribe. Although the Lisu are considered promiscuous in many circles, marriage and courtship are of great importance within the tribe.  The bridal dowries within the tribe tend to be very high.

The unique and talented Lisu people are a highly adjustable group who has had little or no problem adjusting to Thai culture and modern changes.  They continue to exist as one of the most gifted and beautiful of all of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand.

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