Introduction / History Most of the ethnic groups of northeastern Thailand live in villages along the Mekong River and its tributaries. They speak various languages which come from either the Mon Khmer or Tai group. Most of the people are bilingual, speaking both their native language and one of the Tai or Lao languages.
China is the original homeland of most of these tribes. They gradually migrated southward due to pressure by the Chinese. As they traveled, they conquered many peoples along the way. By the tenth century, a large number had settled in Thailand.
Northern Thailand is the site of the early Mon kingdom which was founded in the sixth century. In the thirteenth century, the kingdom was conquered by the Thai. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Thai forced the Mon to leave their homes and relocate in the Mekong River region. Today, these tribes live along both sides of the river. Over the years, they have been absorbed by the dominant cultures of the region, particularly the Lao and the Thai.
What are their lives like? The tribal peoples of northeastern Thailand are primarily farmers. They cultivate a wide variety of crops, such as rice, fruit, and vegetables, for both consumption and trade. They are poorer than most of the surrounding ethnic groups and are therefore dependent on the Thai for many goods and services. The villagers frequently meet with the Thai to trade meat and vegetables for necessary items such as clothing and salt.
Over the years, the tribes began adopting the practices of the surrounding peoples, especially the Thai and Lao. This brought on many significant changes within their cultures. For example, they no longer use their traditional farming methods of burning and clearing plots. Instead, they grow wet-rice on terraced plots, which is the agricultural method of the Thai. They also raise their cattle and till their fields much like the Lao. The fields are prepared with plows drawn by buffalo or oxen. In addition, fishing and hunting have become important activities.
Among these tribes, the village is considered the most significant political unit of society. Each village is led by a headman, and each family is led by the father. Rules concerning moral behavior vary from tribe to tribe. For example, the Phuthai and Nyaw only allow marriages within their own people groups; whereas, the other tribes now frequently intermarry with the neighboring ethnic groups.
The village houses are usually made of wood or bamboo. They are built on stilts above the ground, with farmlands adjacent to the residential areas. Domestic fowl, pigs, and goats are allowed to run freely underneath the houses.
Although most of the groups have adapted to the cultural traits of the neighboring peoples, others, such as the Phuthai, retreated into the surrounding hills as other ethnic groups advanced. Nevertheless, all of the tribal communities have been affected by the Thai and Lao cultures. Such things as traditional dress, language, educational methods, housing, and public administration have all changed over the years. Only a few distinctive, cultural characteristics have remained: the famous "round dances" of the Saek women; the distinct silk scarves worn by the So women around a bun of hair at their necks; the hand-woven silk of the Phuthai women, made in unique colorful designs; and the traditional "spirit doctors" of the Nyaw.
What are their beliefs? Buddhism was introduced into Thailand in 329 B.C. and today, all of these tribes are primarily Buddhist. However, most of them have mixed elements of Buddhism with their traditional animistic beliefs (belief that non-living objects have spirits). For this reason, the people often seek help through supernatural spirits and objects.
Ancestor worship (praying to deceased ancestors for provision and guidance) is also common. The ancestral spirits are thought to cause illnesses if they are not appeased. Families usually have small altars near their homes where sacrifices and offerings are made to the spirits. The people also believe that each village has a "guardian spirit," as well as various spirits that are linked to the elements of nature.
Many of the villagers who have little outside influence are still strongly committed to spirit worship. They rely heavily on "spirit doctors," who supposedly have great healing powers.
What are their needs? Additional laborers are desperately needed to effectively reach these tribes with the Light of the Gospel. Prayer warriors are also needed to faithfully begin interceding for these precious people.
Prayer Points Ask God to encourage those living in northeastern Thailand who have given their hearts to Jesus Christ.
Pray that the Holy Spirit will complete the work begun in their hearts through adequate discipleship.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to thrust forth many laborers into the fields of northeastern Thailand.
Pray that God will call out prayer teams to break up the soil through worship and intercession.
Ask the Lord to raise up strong fellowships of believers within each of these tribes. * Pray for completion of Bible translation in this people group's primary language.