The Lawa are a small tribe with about 10,000 members that live mainly on the Bo Luang Plateau area in northern Thailand, near the towns of Chiang Mai, Pai and Ban Mae Sariang Thailand. Also known as the Lua, Luwa or Lava, they speak a distinctive language, either in the Palaung-Wa or Mon-Khmer group of Austroasiatic languages, and practice Buddhism and animism. [Source: Peter Kundstadter, National Geographic July 1966]

The Lawa language is related to the Blang found in China and the and the Wa language found in Myanmar and China. Most linguists place it in the group of Palaungic languages, a branch of the Austroasiatic languages. There are thought to be around 17,000 Lawa. Around 7,000 were counted in 1987. The Western Lawa are found in around Mae Sariang in the south of Mae Hong Son Province; the Eastern Lawa are centred on Bo Luang in Chiang Mai Province. The Lawa are sometimes mistaken with the Lua of northern Laos and of Nan Province, Thailand, who speak distantly related Khmuic languages. This problem is largely due to preference of the Eastern Lawa of Chiang Mai Province to be called Lua by outsiders, and by the Thai people generally referring to speakers of these different Palaungic languages as Lua. [Source: Wikipedia]

Unlike other Southeast Asian hill tribes, the Lawa have Melanesian features similar to those of black people living in Papua New Guinea and on islands in the western Pacific. Some have assimilated into Thai culture and practice wet rice agriculture. Others live in small mountain villages and raise corn, dry-land rice and vegetables.

History of the Lawa

According to some anthropologist and scholars, the Lawa have lived in Thailand longer than any other hill tribe (over 950 years). Some sources place the Lawa as the original inhabitants of Northern Thailand, pre-dating the Tai migration there. The Lawa probably emigrated to Thailand from Myanmar. and they are probably related to the Wa tribe, a fierce group of former-head-hunters who now controls some of the major opium growing areas in Myanmar.

According to legend the Lawa were chased into the mountains by a gigantic rolling stone. Some Lawa believe that a massive boulder lying in the small river valley of Mae La Noi, Thailand is the infamous rolling stone. When the Lawa walk past this boulder they are not are supposed to speak their own language out of fear that the stone will recognize them and begin rolling again.

In the 5th to 10th century the Lawa people lived in Central Thailand, and, together with the Mon, were the inhabitants of present-day Lopburi. The name "Lopburi" is said to have been derived from "Lawaburi", and the city formed the core of an early kingdom in what is now Thailand, the Lavo Kingdom, which existed from the 7th century CE until it was incorporated into the Ayutthaya Kingdom in A.D. 1388. Chiang Mai, Thailand, was founded on the location of a A.D. 5th-century CE Lawa walled city, and legends state that Kengtung in Myanmar was taken from the Lawa in the 13th century through cunning and deceit by King Mangrai, the founder of the northern Thai Lanna Kingdom. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The 15th century book Cāmadevivaṃsa by the Chiang Mai monk Bodhiramsi, relates how the Mon Queen Camadevi, a princess of the Lavo Kingdom, established the city of Haripunchai (present-day Lamphun) in the A.D. 7th century and is attacked by Vilanga, king of the Lawa, with 80,000 soldiers. After his defeat, she marries her two sons to the two daughters of the Lawa king, after which the two kingdoms become allies. The founding of the city state of Ngoenyang in the 8th century CE, of which Mangrai was a prince before establishing the Lanna Kingdom in the 13th century, is also attributed to the Lawa in the Doi Tung story.[12]+

The Karen have been the traditional enemy of the Lawa. Karens migrating into Thailand from their homeland in Myanmar have pushed the Lawa off their land in Thailand. The Lawa use to warn each other of Karen raids by beating on drums. A Lawa tribe in northern Thailand had been received Bible training for 12 years from Christian missionaries and then suddenly forbade the missionaries from entering their homes.

Lawa Life and Marriages

Lawa sometimes eat dog but they also have a great love of animals. Anthropologist Peter Kunstadter observed one old woman nurse a puppy back to health after it broke its neck in a rice pounding machine. Lawa women smoke tobacco and marijuana from curved pipes decorated with silver.

If someone gets sick sometimes the gall bladder of a chicken is examined for omens—shiny ones filled with liquid, for example, are a good. Kundstadter observed a patient whose illness was diagnosis by counting the number of grains in the bowl of rice he just ate. Tthe treatment—sacrificing a black dog and a white chicken—didn't work so a specialist was called in to capture the disease-causing evil spirits and implant them into a hard boiled egg. The treatment was called a success when the hard boiled egg was balanced on a stick.

The Lawa have traditionally gotten married when they were in their mid- to late-teens. Before a Lawa wedding, the "crying and whimpering" bride is kidnapped from her hut by the grooms friends or family. The bride was often carried away on horseback and was expected to cry for help and her family gave chase in half-hearted manner. Most of the time, but not always, the bride knows the abduction is coming and usually it is by friends of a boy she likes. Afterwards the groom's family visits the family of the bride to discuss the bride price. In the 1960s the going rate was several pieces of silver and couple of pigs. After the wedding ceremony, in which the couple's wrists are tied, the women form a procession and carry the brides' weaving equipment and pots and pans to her husband's house.

Lawa Rituals

Animal sacrifices are held by hill tribes to help sick relatives, assure that good spirits watch over their children, and appease the spirits at healing ceremonies, weddings, house christening and births. In ascending order of importance, chickens, dogs, pigs and water buffalo are all sacrificed. A small ceremony to cure a cold may require only one chicken while the wedding of the son of a chief might result in the sacrifice of many water buffalos. Occasionally, a pig is sacrificed for no other reason than because people are hungry for meat.

In a sacrifice, the spirits only take the spirit of the dead animal, which means that animal itself, including the meat, the ears, nose and tail, eyelashes and hoof slivers, are divided among the villagers. The Thai government used to have a tax on sacrificed animals which the Lawa tribes skirted by claiming the animal accidentally hung itself, and they had no other choice but to slaughter it.

Traditional Lawa house

Wrist-tying is a custom performed by many hill tribes do to keep an individual's 64 souls within the body and ward off evil spirits. At weddings tying cotton strings around their wrists is the equivalent of exchanging rings. Some tribes place a brass rings around the wrist as a welcoming gesture to new initiates. Even elephants are rewarded with wrist-tying ceremonies for working. particularly hard. One villager told Kundstadter that he realized elephants don't have wrists, "but they have souls and that is the important thing."

Lawa Villages and Homes

Most Lawa live in small villages ruled by a "big samang," a combination headman, shaman and religious leader. One Lawa villager told anthropologist Peter Kundstadter in National Geographic: "If we didn't have a samang, we would have to live like apes and monkeys in the jungle." The samang presides over all religious ceremonies except for funerals (the Lawa believe that a samang who sets foot in a cemetery loses his powers). Any time an animal is sacrificed or a wild animal is killed in the jungle a leg is given to the samang.

Lawa houses are purposely arranged in a haphazard way. The Lawa believe that aligned houses are bad luck, and if rain from one house drips into rain from another house it may cause sickness. Villagers told Kundstadter that it is also bad luck to build a house next to a trail...Why?... "Because if an elephant bumps into your house, that is very bad luck."

Lawa houses traditionally have been built with thatched roofs (cool in hot weather and warm in cool weather) and set on stilts (which prevent the house from being flooded during the wet season). In the 1960s it cost about $35 to build such a house. This price included timber stilts and beams, bamboo poles for the walls, bamboo mats for floors, labor, two pigs for a feast and a dog and two chickens for a sacrifice. Gathering the materials from the forest and preparing them took about three days; building the house took only a day. The hardest task is setting the timber stilts and building the frame. The construction of the fireplace (a wooden frame filled with sand) is "entrusted only to older men."

Lawa Clothes

Traditionally dressed Lawa women wear plain smock-like dresses or long white or grey tunics and black skirts with horizontal red and white lines. They adorn themselves with less jewelry than other hill tribes (some beads and bracelets); smear their faces with rice powder to keep their skin young and fresh; and don black tunics during special ceremonies.

Lawa. men usually wear baggy pants or sarongs and western-style shirts, or traditional Thai short-sleeve smock shirts made from white homespun cotton. Some Lawa men also tattoo themselves between their waist and knees with tiger and ape designs as a sign of manhood and for protection from evil spirits and wild animals. Lawa shaman wear shirts decorated with spirals of red chord.

The Lawa sometimes still make their own cotton cloth. First the seeds are removed from the cotton with a machine consisting of hand-cranked rollers. Then the fluffy balls of cotton are turned into thread with a hand-turned spinning wheel. After the thread is sorted, dyed and washed it is made into cloth with a bamboo belt loom with foot-operated bamboo pedals, a hand-operated wooden carding system and poles for the yarn.

Lawa kids

Image Sources: Green Trails ; Joshua project

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company; New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBCand various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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