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All visitors to northern Thailand should, where possible, find time to join a tour to one or more of the numerous hilltribe villages scattered across the region. There are six main tribes in northern Thailand : the Karen, Hmong, Lisu, Akha, Lahu and Yao. One of the more colorful of the six, and second in numbers only to the Karen, is the Hmong.

According to legend, the Hmong swept down into China many centuries ago from the steppes of Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet, but this cannot be verified. Suffice it to say that the Hmong, being a nomadic tribe of farmers, began a never-ending quest for land that took them throughout China, and on into Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of Hmong, who had fought alongside the Americans against the North Vietnamese, fled persecution in Vietnam and Laos to make a new life in the United States. Indeed, many of the Hmong people in Thailand today began life in this country in refugee camps, having fled oppression in neighboring countries.

The Hmong, are a proud and independent people; warrior poets who, down the long years, have evolved into a tribe of itinerant hill farmers, many thousands of whom have established villages in the hills of northern Thailand.

For years, the main crop harvested by the Hmong was the opium poppy. Opium, and its conversion to heroin, brought income and debilitating addiction to the hilltribe people; and it has only during the past decade that the efforts of the Royal Project, along with non government organizations, have been successful achieving a vast reduction in poppy cultivation. The majority of hilltribe farmers now grow a variety of cash crops including coffee, tea, rice, vegetables and fruit. With government help, such products are now marketed worldwide.

The Hmong fall into two large subgroups : the Blue Hmong and the White Hmong; identified easily by their colorful clothing. Blue Hmong ladies wear pleated hemp skirts with embroidered red, white and blue hoops. Many have a central horizontal panel of batik design. Their jackets, made of black cotton, are adorned with bright yellow lapels and cuffs, and they tend to wear their hair in a bun.

White Hmong women can be identified by their black baggy trousers and pink cummerbunds. Black aprons, edged with blue, are often worn front and back. White Hmong men and women often wear brimless blue caps. All Hmong wear silver jewelry, in the form of neck rings, earrings and bracelets. Silver has a special significance to the Hmong, symbolizing wealth and good fortune.

Hilltribe jewelry is much sought after by visitors to the north, and many Hmong women can be seen carrying trays of jewelry for sale in and around the tourist areas of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

There is no set layout to the average Hmong village, although a horseshoe pattern is common. All houses, however, must face downhill, and no two houses are ever found to be in direct line with one another, as good spirits must enter each home in a straight line with nothing obstructing their path.

Hmong villages differ from those of the other tribes in that they are neither fenced in nor have gates. Along the trails approaching a Hmong village, you will see many ceremonial bridges, built for soul-calling and healing rites.

Animism is the traditional religion of the Hmong, who believe that natural objects possess souls. Household spirits abound in each home, protecting all therein from bad spirits, illness and death. Every Hmong village boasts at least one shaman (holy person), whose job it is to look after the well-being of all in the village. He or she, being called in to cure a person who is sick, is likely to fall into a trance and to perform ritual dancing in order to drive out the illness.

Maintaining culture and religion have come under severe pressure as the realities of modern living take their toll: while the movement continues of entire villages in the pursuit of better land, more and more are settling into permanency; pickup trucks have all but replaced the sturdy hill ponies; Hmong children are being educated in Thai schools, colleges and universities, and yesterday's poppy farmer is today's hilltribe coffee entrepreneur.

For all that, the unique culture and traditions of the Hmong people are as strong today as ever they were, and seem destined to remain that way.

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