The Karen Hill Tribe - History and Culture​

Table of Contents

Origins of the Karen Hill Tribe

It is not clear where the Karen (กะเหรี่ยง) hill tribe originates from. Tibet and the Gobi desert are considered possible homelands of the Karen. What is clear is that the Karen have been living in Burma for many centuries. In the 18th century, Karen started migrating into Thailand. I don’t know what the reasons for this migration were.

local woman with textile Karen hill tribe
Karen woman weaving

Where do they live?

Karen people live in fifteen provinces in Thailand. These are mostly along the border between Myanmar and Thailand from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son down to Tak, Kanchanaburi, and further south to the Isthmus of Kra. Green Trails organizes tours to Karen communities in the Mae Wang area and around Doi Inthanon National Park.

Karen communities also feature tours to the Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao areas. There are Karen villages as far north as the Doi Wawee area, south of Chiang Rai City.

Picture of a Karen woman
Karen woman

Karen languages and subgroups

The Karen languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. In Thailand, the Karen hill tribe is divided into four major language sub-groups:

1 – The S’gaw Karen who call themselves and other related subgroups Pga-gan Yaw (Pakayor).

2 – Then there are the Pwo Karen or Plong. The Pwo Karen language contains four different dialects: Eastern Pwo, Western Pwo, Northern Pwo, and Phrae Pwo.

3 – The Pa’O or Taungthu are also known as Black Karen. They speak a different language, but the women dress differently from the Pwo and S’Gaw Karen. They wear a piece of textile wrapped as a turban on their head. Not many people know this, but there is a Pa’O temple in Chiang Mai: Wat Nong Kham on Chiang Moi road. The Pa’O also participate in festival parades such as the Songkran parade.

4 – Kayah or Red Karen. They are also known as Karenni. The Kayan people, aka Padaung, belong to this group. The Padaung women are known as the Long Necks. They live in Kayah State in Myanmar. There are several “Long Neck villages” in Thailand. The most well-known are Huay Pu Keng near Mae Hong Son and Ban Tong Luang near Chiang Mai.

woman weaving
Kayan woman weaving in Huay Pu Keng Village, Mae Hong Son province

S’gaw Karen Language

Hello(where are you going?) 

Goodbye(come back again)

Yes

No

Thank you

How much

Good

Very good

Rice

Village

House

Guest room

Rice

Water

Tea

Boy

Girl

Bed

Baby

Beautiful

What is your name

Lessu Le

Leelon

Uhh

Dumaba

Ta Blu

Delow

Gay

Gay do rah

May

Zee

Du

Depan

May

Tea

Normal

Akwe

Homung

Meenon

Poesur

Gweek

Mee dee low

Counting in Karen S’gaw Language

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Twenty

Hundred

De

Key

Sae

Lui

Yeh

Chu

Nuiy

Chor

Quee

Chee

Queechee

Dukuzar

Counting in S’gaw Karen language

Chaepho, a woman from Ban Mae Klang Luang in Doi Inthanon National Park, introduces herself and counts for us in S’gaw Karen language.

In Ban Mae Klang Luang, there is a primary school with 40 pupils which I visited. At this school, they only teach the Thai language. My impression is that children only learn to speak the S’gaw Karen language at home. They don’t read to read and write. Very few people are still able to read and write in the village, which will only become less and less.

Karen hill tribe women weaving at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center.
Karen hill tribe women weaving at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.

Michael Rogge: the Karen people in 1962

This is an 8mm film featuring Karen people and elephants from the YouTube channel of Michael Rogge, Dutch photographer, filmmaker, and videographer. Michael added the sound as it was a silent film. This film dates back to 1962. We don’t know who shot this film.

Religion of the Karen people

The Karen hill tribe is the largest of the minority groups in Thailand. Missionaries have been very active and persuaded many Karen to become Christian. Many Karen, though, also still practice animism. Much of Karen hill tribe life is dictated by the spirits. The most important spirit is the “Lord of Land and Water,” who controls the productivity of the land and calls upon the rice spirit to grow.

Also important is the matrilineal ancestor guardian spirit (bga). The village priest is the most revered individual. He is the ritual leader, and it is he who sets dates for the annual ceremonies. As the Karen have become Thai citizens, increasing numbers became Buddhists. However, some Karen, especially the Sgaw Karen, have been very responsive to the gospel and are now Christian.

Tribal woman with background view
Guide during Pha Dok Siew Nature Trail

Karen traditional Dress and Textiles

The Karen hill tribe people wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colors and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. They are also skilled weavers. In many Karen villages you will encounter weaving looms in the space underneath the traditional house on stilts.

The livelihood of Karen people

Karen villages are in general located at lower elevation than the other hill tribes. It seems that they were integrated earlier in Thai society than the other tribes. They also came to Thailand earlier than the Hmong, Lisu and other tribes.. 

Most Karen people live in mountain villages, such as on Doi Inthanon, and practice shifting cultivation of the rotating field type (that is, they move their fields, not their villages). They are primarily subsistence rice farmers. Because they live in the lower mountains, they have interacted significantly with the Thai population. They are considered the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes as they practice crop rotation, thus preserving the forest.

The Karen hill tribe is the only tribe that owns elephants. This tradition goes back centuries and still villagers of a community such Huay Pha Koot, Mae Chaem district, own almost 100 elephants.

Most of their formerly isolated villages now have electricity, running water, and at least a good dirt road. I have found no evidence yet that the Karen people cultivated opium in the past.

Guest and Mahout Karen Culture and Elephant Experience
Karen Culture and Elephant Experience

Important Karen festivals

Many Karen people have been converted to Christianity. They celebrate Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter. During Easter, the Karen also engage in ‘finding the egg.’ More about this tradition here.
Buddhist Karen celebrate the New Year (‘Nee Saw Ko’) in January.

Interesting links and other sources

You can find more information on sources on the Karen people and other ethnic minorities of North Thailand on this page.