The Karen hill tribe – History and Culture


Origins of the Karen Hill Tribe
Where do they live?
Karen subgroups
Karen Language
Karen religion
Karen Culture and lifestyle
Important Karen festivals
The Karen people in Green Trails tours

Tribal couple in the forest Karen hill tribe
White Karen couple west of Chiang Mai, 1930. Picture courtesy of the Backhouse archive

Origins of the Karen Hill Tribe

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.

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 in and around Doi Inthanon National Park.

Karen communities also feature in 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.

local woman with textile Karen hill tribe
Karen woman weaving

Karen subgroups and languages

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 who are also known as Black Karen. They not only 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 wellknown are Huay Pu Keng near Mae Hong Son and Ban Tong Luang near Chiang Mai.

Women in traditional dress during parade Karen hill tribe
Pa-O women during the Songkran Parade in Chiang Mai

Karen Skaw Language

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                                    Key

3                                    Sae

4                                    Lui

5                                   Yeh

6                                    Chu

7                                    Nuiy

8                                    Chor

9                                    Quee

10                                  Chee

20                                  Queechee

100                                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 Thai language. My impression is that children only learn to speak S’gaw Karen language at home. Tkey don’t read to read and write. Very few people are still able to read and write in the village and that will only become less and less.

Two women in a field Karen hill tribe
Karen women in a good mood

Karen religion

The Karen hill tribe is the largest of the minority groups.Missionaries have been very active and persuaded many Karen to become Christian. Some Karen though still practise 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 and are Christian..

homestay owner Nongjao Huay Khao Lip
Karen homestay owner Nongjao

Karen Hill Tribe Culture and lifestyle

Karen traditional Dress and Textiles

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. Many 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.

They are also skilled weavers and the most environmentally conscious of the hill tribes – practizing crop rotation, thus preserving the forest. The Karen hill tribe is the only tribe that owns elephants. Their formerly isolated villages now have 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.

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.
Colourful tribal textile Karen hill tribe
Karen textile

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.

The Karen people in Green Trails tours

You can meet the Karen people in many Green Trails tours: