Kuy women in traditional attires
Total population
> 500,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos
Thailand400,000 (2006)[1]
Cambodia70,302 (2019)[2]
Laos42,800 (2005)[3]
Kuy, others
Animism (or Satsana Phi), Theravada Buddhism
Related ethnic groups
Katuic peoples

The Kuy (Khmer: កួយ, Thai: กูย) are an indigenous ethnic group of mainland Southeast Asia. The native lands of the Kuy range from the southern Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand east to the banks of the Mekong River in southern Laos and south to north central Cambodia.[4] The Kuy are an ethnic minority in all three countries, where they live as "hill tribes" or Montagnards. Their language is classified as a Katuic language of the Mon-Khmer language family. The Thais, Lao, and Khmer traditionally recognize the Kuy as the aboriginal inhabitants of the region. [citation needed] The word kuy in the Kuy language means "people" or "human being"; alternate English spellings include Kui, Kuoy and Kuay, while forms similar to "Suay" or "Suei" are derived from the Thai/Lao exonyms meaning "those who pay tribute".[5] The Kuy are known as skilled mahouts, or elephant trainers, and many Kuy villages are employed in finding, taming, and selling elephants.[6]

Geographic distribution

The Kuy are found in a region of mainland Southeast Asia roughly between the Dangrek Mountains and the Mun River, straddling the borders where Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos meet.[citation needed] The majority, over 80 percent, live in Thailand in the provinces of Surin, Buriram, Sisaket, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Ubon Ratchathani. From Ubon Ratchathani, their range continues over the Lao border where another 43,000 live in Savannakhet, Salavan and Champasak provinces along both banks of the Mekong. Across the Cambodian border, approximately 38,000 Kuy live mainly in Preah Vihear, Steung Treng, Siem Reap, and northern Kampong Thom with a small population in Kratie.[7] In Cambodia and Laos, Kuy is considered a "hill tribe" and, especially in Laos, many live in remote isolated areas in separate villages and have not integrated into mainstream society. In Cambodia, where significant numbers of Kuy also live among the Khmer, they are considered a Khmer Loeu group while in Laos there are counted among the Lao Theung ("midland Lao"). In Thailand, most Kuy people are more socially integrated and often live in mixed villages alongside the Northern Khmer.


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Traditional Kuy culture is similar to other Mon-Khmer minority groups of Southeast Asia. Historically, they were subsistence farmers and supplemented this by weaving, raising livestock, and fishing. During times of drought or when the soil lost its fertility, whole villages relocated to more favorable land. Veneration of spirits, known by the Lao term satsana phi, was the primary religious or cosmological belief. In addition to ancestor spirits, Kuy believe in other nature spirits including that of the monitor lizard (takuat) which they believe to be symbol of fertility. The Kuy perform ceremonies to please the spirit and ask for fertility from nature. Those of ill health would perform a ceremony called kael mo for healing.[citation needed] Those Kuy who raise and train elephants venerate their own set of spirits related to their work, so-called "Pakam", which is located mostly in Thailand.[8]

Modern Kuy, however, is influenced by the dominant culture of the country in which they live. Most Kuy in Thailand, for example, where 20th century Thaification policies outlawed spirit worship, have adopted the local form of Theravada Buddhism and some, start using Isan Thai as an alternate first language.[citation needed] Seventy-four percent of the Kuy in Cambodia are no longer fluent in Kuy, having adopted Khmer for daily use,[7] and many have all but integrated into Khmer society although a significant portion still participates in traditional Kuy spiritual activities alongside Khmer Buddhism.

Women have an esteemed position in Kui society ensuring community cohesion and spiritual beliefs, apart from their central role in subsistence food production.[9]


As with other aspects of Kuy culture, language use varies based on the country of residence. The Kuy in Thailand have been subject to Thaification policies in the past and, while maintaining positive views about their native language (Kuy), most often use the local Lao dialect. Thai Kuy are also fluent in Central Thai and 40 percent also use Northern Khmer. A majority of monolingual Kuy speakers are in Laos, where approximately 80 percent speak only Kuy. The remaining Kuy of Laos also uses Lao. Only 26 percent of the Kuy in Cambodia reported being able to communicate in the Kuy language with the remainder speaking only Khmer.[7] The Kuy language had been reported to have no alphabet of its own until recently the Kui Association of Thailand has launched 21st Kui/Kuy writing system developed by Dr. Sanong Suksaweang for all the Kui/Kuy. However, most of the Kuy have not learned and have been using the national language Thai script in Thailand, Khmer script in Cambodia, and Lao script in Laos.

The Kuy language belongs to the Austroasiatic language family, within which several more closely related languages, including Bru, Ta-Oi, and Kuy, among others, make up the Katuic subgroup. Kuy accounts for the largest group of Katuic speakers with recent estimates placing their numbers at 800,000, double the more conservative traditionally accepted estimates.[10] Separated by distance, geographical features and political borders, Kuy speakers' speech has evolved into several marked, but mutually intelligible, dialects. In Thailand, two major dialects have been recognized, each of which can be further divided into sub-dialects.[11] Cambodian Kuy has been described as having four distinct dialects,[12] while the political situation in Laos has made study of Kuy dialects there difficult.


Research of the late-19th to early-20th century reported that the Kuy of the time were "vaguely aware" of different clans or tribes within Kuy society, but even by that time consciousness of these divisions was waning.[11] A 1988 study found that modern Kuy were no longer conscious of any clan or tribal affiliation and, among themselves, only recognized differences in dialect and national origin.[11] One exception were the approximately 200[13] Kuy Nheu (ɲə), found in the Sisaket, Phrai Bueng and Rasi Salai districts of Srisaket, who were "very conscious of the fact that they were different from all other Kui".[11]

Kuy in Cambodia

Kuy people in Cambodia playing traditional instruments

The Kuy people are actively engaged in efforts to preserve Prey Lang forest in Cambodia.[14][15] Prey Lang's name originated from the Kuy language and means "the forest (Prey) which belongs to all of us".[16] Organisations including Amnesty International and Cultural Survival have documented how Kuy people have faced development aggression and been forcefully evicted from their homes due to economic land concessions.[14][17][18]

The "spirit forest" is an integral part of Kuy culture, however spirit forests are increasingly impacted by mining interests as Cambodia develops.[19] Some Kuy people are artisans with unique basket and textile weaving skills.[20] Some Kuy are rice farmers or raise silk worms and weave silk.[21]

The Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association has members who are Kuy people who study and work in Phnom Penh.

Famous Kuy people


  1. ^ 2006 Mahidol University Study, cited in Ethnologue
  2. ^ 2019 Indigenous Peoples Organization, cited in [1]
  3. ^ 2005 Lao Census, cited in Ethnologue
  4. ^ "The Kuy People of Laos". Southeast Asian Peoples Research Center. Archived from the original on June 11, 2017. Retrieved October 8, 2013.
  5. ^ Somsonge, Burusphat (1990). "The Functions of kʌʔ in Oral Kui Narrative" (PDF). Mon-Khmer Studies Journal. 18–19: 223. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
  6. ^ Pongsak, Nakprada. "The "Elephants Return to Homeland" Project Management for Provincial Economic Development in Surin Province" (PDF). The Government of Thailand. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 7 November 2015. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ a b c Kuy (Kuay) at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  8. ^ Srichandrakumara; Giles, Francis (1930). "Adversaria of Elephant Hunting, (together with an account of all the rites, observances and acts of worship to be performed in connection therewith, as well as notes on vocabularies of spirit language, fake or taboo language and elephant command words)" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society (23). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 November 2020. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
  9. ^ "Indigenous women and development-induced violence in Southeast Asia" (PDF). March 2013.
  10. ^ Sidwell, P. (2005). The Katuic languages: classification, reconstruction and comparative lexicon Archived 2020-12-04 at the Wayback Machine. LINCOM studies in Asian linguistics, 58. Munich: Lincom Europa. ISBN 3-89586-802-7
  11. ^ a b c d Van der haak, F; Woykos, B (1988). "Kui dialect Survey in Surin and Sisaket" (PDF). Mon-Khmer Studies Journal. 16–17. Retrieved 7 November 2015.
  12. ^ Mann, N., & Markowski, L. (2005). A rapid appraisal survey of Kuy dialects spoken in Cambodia. SIL International.
  13. ^ Nyeu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  14. ^ a b "Help Us Save Prey Lang ("Our Forest")". Cultural Survival. February 2012. Archived from the original on 2013-07-18. Retrieved 2013-08-29.
  15. ^ Keating, Neal (May 14, 2012). "Spirits of the Forest: Cambodia's Kuy People Practice Spirit-based Conservation". Cultural Survival.
  16. ^ "Viet companies continue to destroy Prey Lang" (PDF). Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. 14 March 2011.
  17. ^ "Eviction and resistance in Cambodia: Hong's story". 6 June 2012. Archived from the original on 9 November 2013. Retrieved 9 November 2013.
  18. ^ The Other Cambodia: Indigenous People's Land and Rights (video) (in Khmer). Cambodia: NGO Forum on Cambodia. 2013. Retrieved 9 November 2013.
  19. ^ "Mining in Cambodia: Community Contradictions". Oxfam. December 16, 2011.
  20. ^ "Indigenous Crafts of Cambodia" (PDF). UNESCO.
  21. ^ "Kuoy People". People and Knowledge of Highlanders. 14 March 2011.