Karen hill tribe – History and Culture

Origins of the Karen

It is not clear where the Karen 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.

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.

Where do they live?

Karen live in fifteen provinces in Thailand. These are all along the Burmese-Thai border 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 on Doi Inthanon. Karen communities also feature in tours to the Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao areas. There are Karen villages in the Doi Wawee area, south of Chiang Rai.

Subgroups

In Thailand, the Karen hill tribe is divided into four major sub-groups: the Sgaw Karen who call themselves and other related subgroups Pga-gan Yaw. Then there are the Pwo Karen or Plong: the Pa-O or Taungthu who are also known as Black Karen and the Bwe or Kayah or Red Karen. There are two sub-categories of Pwo Karen – in the north, the Pwo Rachaburi, and in the east, the Pwo Kanchanaburi.

Language

The Karen languages are members of the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. They consist of three mutually unintelligible branches: Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa’o. The Karen languages are almost unique among the Tibeto-Burman languages in having a subject–verb–object word order. Other than Karen and Bai, Tibeto-Burman languages feature a subject–object–verb order. This anomaly is likely due to the influence of neighboring Mon and Tai languages.

Karen Pwo

Hello(where are you going?) Lessu (as in let)

Goodbye(come back again) Leelon

Yes Meesur (sur as in certain)

No Meeber

Thank you Nibonitar (Ni as in knee)

How much Chi dulleh

Good Gwee

Very good Gwee ter ter

Rice Gwee ter ter (ter as in terror)

Village Ring paa

House Dank

Guest room Sow

Food (rice) Obee

Water tea

Tea Char

Boy Akwe

Girl Amung

bed meenon

Baby Poesur

Beautiful Gweek

What is your name? Ami Nit Alair?

1 Bon

2 Key

3 Saar

4 Lee

5 Yeah

6 Who

7 Noair

8 Kho

9 Quee

10 Lachee

20 queechee

100 Lapang

Karen Skaw

Hello(where are you going?) Lessu Le

Goodbye(come back again) Leelon

Yes Uhh

No Dumaba

Thank you Tola Blu

How much Delow

Good Gay

Very good Gay do rah

Rice May

Village Zee

House du

Guest room depan

Food (rice) May

Water tea

Tea normal

Boy Akwe

Girl Homung

bed meenon

Baby Poesur

Beautiful Gweek

What is your name? Mee Dee Low?

1 De

2 Ke

3 Sur

4 Lui

5 Zer

6 Chu

7 Noay

8 Chor

9 Quee

10 chee

20 queechee

100 Dukuzar

Religion

The Karen hill tribe is the largest of the minority groups. Many people of the Karen hill tribe were converted to Christianity by the missionaries, with some tribes still practicing animism. Much of Karen hill tribe life is dictated by the spirits. The most important 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 been incorporated into the Thai state increasing numbers have turned to Buddhism. However, some Karen, especially the Sgaw Karen, have been very responsive to the gospel.

Culture and lifestyle

The Karen hill tribe people wear woven v-neck tunics of various natural colours and turbans. Unmarried women wear distinctive long white v-neck tunics. The Karen occupy lowland areas, engaging in agriculture, including rice cultivation. Most Karen live in mountain villages 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.

Karen hill tribe, Samoeng
Karen hill tribe man and woman, Samoeng, Chiang Mai. Picture by Frans Betgem

They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes – practicing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest. The Karen hill tribe is the only tribe that owns elephants. Their formerly isolated villages now boast electricity, running water and a dirt road. Many marketable crops, such as tomatoes, soya beans, peanuts, beans and peppers, have become almost as important as the basic rice crop.

Important Karen festivals

As many Karen hill tribe 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.

Green Trails tours that include visits to Karen villages are, amongst others, the Karen Experience and the Mae Wang trekking and cycling tours.