Photo Essays | Society | Southeast Asia

The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

One of Thailand’s smallest ethnic groups makes the transition from nomadic to settled life.

By Sascha Richter for
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A group of Mabri sitting in front of an house at Ban Huay Yuak, one of five permanent Mlabri settlements in northern Thailand.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

View over Ban Huay Yuak, one of five permanent Mlabri settlements in northern Thailand.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Two men deconstructing an old house in order to use the material for building a new one at Ban Huay Yuak.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A teenager digging for roots in the forest, while having a day off on a Sunday afternoon. The Mlabri’s consumption of food directly hunted or gathered from the forest has decreased since the 1970s and at present amounts to only 7 percent of the average food weight.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A group of children playing on a creek running through their village in Ban Bunyuen, one of five permanent Mlabri settlements in northern Thailand.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A girl, accompanied by her niece, washing clothes on a creek running through her village in Ban Bunyuen.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Portrait of a Mlabri man and his child at Ban Huay Yuak.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Mlabri children are being taught Thai language at Ban Phu Fa, a development project site initiated by the Thai government in 2009. The project aims at promoting the culture and traditions of the Mlabri for visitors as well as carrying out educational and agricultural development programs.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A family outside their house at Ban Huay Yuak.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A man making ground for a new rice field, on a mountain close to his village Ban Bunyuen.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Portrait of a Mlabri women at Ban Huay Yuak.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A group of Mlabri gathering together in front of a TV at Ban Huay Yua.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

A woman weaving hammocks for the export market at Ban Bunyuen. An American missionary and his family set up a business to engage Mlabri in work and pay them a monthly wage.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Women carrying home water that is piped into their village via a central pipeline at Ban Bunyuen.

Credit: Sascha Richter
The Mlabri of Northern Thailand

Portrait of Pa smoking a bamboo pipe. He is the village elder at Ban Huay Yuak. He was born in the forest; where and when he does not know, but estimates his age somewhere around 75.

Credit: Sascha Richter

The Mlabri are one of the smallest ethnic groups living in Thailand, numbering about 400 people.

In a period of about 20 years they made a transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer communities living in the forest to a sedentary lifestyle in permanent settlements. They experienced rapid social change when encountering the modern world.

Until the 1990s, the Mlabri lived a nomadic life mainly in forested areas. They lived in mobile units, staying in one place for about five to 10 days, and subsisted largely on hunting, gathering, and digging activities in the forest.

They had limited relations with other ethnic groups living in the mountains, but would sometimes exchange forest products for consumer items such as salt, steel, tobacco, clothes, pigs, rice etc. and occasionally were hired through exploitative, short-term labor arrangements in which they worked for food and clothing as laborers on the farms of Hmong and northern Thai living nearby.

Their traditional lifestyle continued until the 1970s but has gradually changed since then because of deforestation due to agricultural expansion, logging, and road construction.

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Day labor became more important for survival as the natural resources that the Mlabri depended on decreased dramatically; the forest was exploited by lumber companies and by ethnic groups who engaged in swidden agriculture.

In the late 1990s, state-led initiatives introduced a sedentary lifestyle to the Mlabri, bringing them in places near already settled Hmong communities, and encouraging them to start cultivating their own rice and corn fields.

Today, they live in five permanent settlements in the Nan and Phrae provinces, engaging in wage labor, cash crop cultivation, and ethnic tourism.

Traditional hunting and gathering activities still continue, but on a minimal scale (about 7 percent of their food source) and are restricted by access to already rare and over-hunted forest areas, which are under the control of the Thai government.

In 2001, the Mlabri gained formal recognition through citizenship and ID cards with presumed birthdates for individuals born before 1998, and the actual registered birthdates for those born after. Citizenship provided them with access to health and nutritional services at government facilities and children started attending school. Authorities carried out different programs in education, public hygiene, and occupational training, including cultivating cash crops and livestock farming.

Traditional, animistic beliefs still remain, but new faiths and activities were also introduced through Christian and Buddhist missions.

Sascha Richter is a documentary photographer based in Berlin, Germany.