It is not clear where the Karen come from. Tibet and the Gobi desert are considered possible homelands. What is clear is that they have been living in Burma for many centuries. In the 18th century they started migrating into Thailand. They 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 different areas. There are villages in the Doi Wawee area, south of Chiang Rai, as well. In Thailand, the this ethnic minority is divided into four major sub-groups: the Sgaw who call themselves and other related subgroups Pga-gan Yaw. Then there are the Pwo or Plong: the Pa-O or Taungthu who are also known as Black Karen and the Bwe or Kayah or Red Karen.

They are the only ethnic minority who keep elephants. Their 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.

Picture of a Karen woman
woman in traditional dress