Woman in traditional dress in ricefield
Karen woman in Ban Bon Na, Doi Inthanon

The Karen people

It is not entirely clear where the Karen come from but people believe they originally come from Tibet and the Gobi desert. They moved to Burma centuries ago. In the 18th century they started migrating into Thailand. They live in fifteen provinces in Thailand, 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 communities in different areas: Mae Wang, Doi Inthanon, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Dao. In Thailand, this ethnic minority has 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.

There are approximately one million in Thailand, which makes the most numerous ethnic minority. In Myanmar they are the third biggest ethnic minority group with an estimated population of six million.

In Myanmar the Karen have been fighting for decades for an independent homeland. The continuous conflict with the Myanmar army resulted in a flow of refugees who sought asylum in Thailand. Many of them are still living in camps in Tak province.

They are the only ethnic minority in Thailand, who keep elephants. Their languages belong to 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 the Mae Wang area