KAREN, They originated from Tibet, moving south to Myanmar and northern Thailand. Today, the Karen hill tribe live in proximity to areas alongside the Thai-Myanmar border such as; Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and some in central Thailand.
The Karen hill tribe in Thailand (sometimes referred to as the ‘Kariang/Gariang’ or ‘Kayin’) call themselves ‘Pakanyor’. There are 4 major types of Karen; the Sgaw (White Karen), Po (Red Karen), Pa-O and the Kayah. Each sub-group has their own distinct language, customs and costume. The languages are very different and unintelligible from each other, and each has their own dialect.
The Karen tribe is famous in culture activities. Traditionally they come from Kayah state and Shan state in Myanmar. Due to ethnic and political conflict in Burma, many fled to Thailand and sought refugee status here. That is how the Karen Long neck villages in Thailand came about.
Traditionally the Karen are animists, with a strong belief in the spirit world. The most important, are the spirits of “Land and Water” who control the productivity of the land and call upon the rice to grow. Traditionally much of Karen hill tribe life is dictated by the spirits, and they are a highly superstitious people. The village chief is highly a revered figure, who conducts rituals and must be consulted upon when setting dates for any ceremony or event in the village. After all, there are auspicious and inauspicious days for almost everything.
Today as many as 30% of the Karen in Thailand, have been converted to Christianity by missionaries throughout the years. For the converted, animism still plays an important part in village life though, with all villagers participating in spirit festivals.
Karen Hill Tribe Villages
Karen villages are scattered across the countryside of northern Thailand. They can be found in just about every province and district in northern Thailand, such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son. Traditionally, the Karen people prefer to dwell in mountainous highland areas. Many traditional villages can still be found in remote areas of Thailand, where the Karen still live in primitive conditions in bamboo stilt houses.
The Karen tribe are unrelated to other ethnic minorities and hill tribes in Thailand and Burma. They settled in what is now called Thailand, centuries before the Thais arrived (when the country was part of the Mon-Khmer Empire). They are believed to originated from Tibet, migrating southwards through China, to Myanmar and Thailand. Christian Missionaries began arriving in Karen territories after Burma was annexed by the British in 1826. They converted many Karen people to Christianity, and romanised their language.
The Karen traditionally wear tunics and sarongs, handwoven by the females of the family. They also like to wear turbans of wrapped cloth on their heads. The costumes vary slightly between the sub-groups, but one trait shared by all, is the difference between an un-married and married woman’s dress. An un-married woman’s costume is a long and plain white tunic dress down to her ankles. Whereas a married woman wears sarong and a brightly coloured Karen style shirt with elaborate patterns and seeds sewn on.
The Karen that live in the mountains, practice slash and burn agriculture. Whilst those in the lowlands cultivate irrigated paddy fields. They all rotate their fields (shifting cultivation) and are traditionally subsistence rice farmers. Today, alongside rice they also grow cash crops such as; corn, soy beans, cabbage and coffee. Traditionally they live in bamboo stilt houses with their domestic animals such as chickens and pigs living underneath. Their long history and integration in Thailand, means they have largely assimilated into Thai society.
The Karen language is a tonal and monosyllabic one. Historically, missionaries in Thailand romanised the sounds of the Karen language, such that today the Karen people in Thailand read and write Karen language using the roman alphabet.
Culture and Lifestyle
The Karen are the only tribe in Thailand to own and work with elephants. They have a long standing history and relationship with elephants, who they used to work in the forests. They are famous as highly skilled mahouts, and in fact, most of the mahouts in the elephants camps in Chiang Mai today, are Karen hill tribe.
One of the best ways to learn about the Karen is through a cultural immersion experience with them. The Karen are a warm and gentle group, living peacefully with nature.
Why not learn firsthand from the Karen people themselves ? Our Karen hill tribe guides can take you to visit authentic Karen villages, meeting their friends and family to learn about the Karen way of life. For a full cultural experience you can stay overnight at a Karen hill tribe village, to find out more about this Contact us