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The Lahu hilltribe of Thailand

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The Lahu originated in China and Tibet before eventually migrating to Thailand.  Linguistically they are Sino-Tibetan.  Their language has spread far and wide among the hill tribes of Thailand due to their propensity to outsource work to members of other hill tribes.  There are several subgroups of the Lahu but only six are present in Thailand.

The Lahu are one of the large hill tribes in Thailand, with a reported population of around 80,000.  The majority of the Lahu live around the Burmese border in areas like Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Kampeg Phet, Chiang Mai, and Tak.

The Lahu hilltribes of Thailand are primarily theistic Animists, with a leaning toward ancestor worship. This means that they are nature worshippers, who have a tendency toward one localized deity, as well as a deep spiritual connection to their ancestors.  This localized deity in the case of the Lahu is known as Geusha.  Animism and ancestor worship are very common practices among the hill tribes of Thailand.

Not all Lahu are animists, in fact 30% of the overall total of Lahu in Thailand have left the group to convert to Christianity.  Those who have done this have completely assimilated into Christian Thai culture. There is also a growing number of Buddhists within the group, though these members of the Lahu tend to retain many of the traditions of their culture. Although there is a sense of Christian and Buddhist influence in Lahu culture, the overwhelming majority of the Lahu still follow the traditional religious beliefs of the community.

The biggest holiday for the Lahu is their New Year ceremony, known as Kho Cha Lor, which lasts 5 days and takes place annually at varying times between the months of January and March.  The Red Lahu are known to build centralized Animist temples in the confines of their villages.  They are the only tribe in Thailand known to build these temples, which are traditionally surrounded by flowing streamers of yellow and white.  Other tribes tend to have more family localized worship centers. There are still many traditional religious leaders within the tribe, shamanism is still alive and well within this group.

When it comes to marriage, like most hill tribes, the Lahu are monogamists. The unions between the Lahu tend to be brought about in a very aggressive manner.  This has resulted in a large presence of divorce and adultery amongst the Lahu people. The Lahu often marry outside of their tribe. Kinship is not a significant matter to the Lahu.

The Lahu traditionally inhabit homes that are built on stilts with walls of bamboo or wooden planks.  The Lahu home traditionally has one open central living area and a store room, as well as a centralized fireplace.  There is typically one large bedroom that is sometimes sectioned off to provide privacy.  The Lahu prefer to build their homes in area of high altitude, typically settling their villages in areas where the altitude is at least 1,000 meters.

The Lahu hilltribes  are known for their skills in hunting and trapping.  In fact, the name Lahu means hunter.  This is not their only talent however. They are also widely renowned herbalists, due to a great knowledge of medicinal herbs. It is not unusual for the Lahu to either offer their services or accept services from other hill tribes.  They tend to be a large, strong, and talented people.

The women are fantastic weavers able to work equally well with foot treadle looms or back strap looms. They are known for their unique patchwork and embroidery. The men are very talented craftsmen.  They are known for their impressive work on such facets as crossbows, musical instruments, and a multitude of other products that can be carved from bamboo, wood, or rattan.  Both the men and women are talented in weaving, and work together to make some of the most intricate baskets available in all of Thailand.

The Lahu are often criticized for their use of slash and burn agriculture.  This is their lifestyle and way of traditional sustenance however. Slash and burn was once a very traditional form of agriculture, and can work well in some instances as a natural fertilizer.  There are still over 200 million people worldwide who use the same practice today. The criticism over slash and burn agriculture, which basically equates to the burning and clear cutting of an area to make a plot for farming which will later be abandoned when its fertility has depleted, is primarily a result of its wide use in rainforests, often leading to massive wildfires, and its lack of sustainability.

The primary crops grown by the Lahu are dry rice and corn.  They are also known to grow various other fruit and vegetable crops. Though regulations have been enacted to make it tougher, there are still Lahu tribes that grow opium as a cash crop.

The Lahu also practice traditional livestock husbandry.  They generally keep within their possession such traditional livestock as pigs, poultry, and horses.  The animals are used primarily for ceremonial sacrifice and feast as well as transportation.

The clothing of the Lahu varies by tribe. The Black Lahu women for example are known for their black cloaks with diagonal cream stripes.  The sleeves are traditionally red and yellow. Though the traditional outfit of the Black Lahu is considered the most conservative in nature, it also tends to stand out quite a bit from other hill tribes.

The Red Lahu women are known for their black trousers with white edging. Traditionally you will find red and blue stripes on their sleeves.

When it comes to clothing choices, the Red and Black Lahu tribes are the primarily purveyors of tradition. The other Lahu tribes in general have begun to expand their wardrobe by adding some traditional Thai elements to the mix.  The elements consist of items such as Thai style shirts and sarongs. Many Lahu stick to their traditional clothing choices, but it is not entirely unusual to see a Lahu, outside of the Black or Red Lahu subgroups, wearing a mix of traditional Lahu and modern Thai attire.

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