Get to know the Karen People of Thailand

Karen People in Thailand

Karen people are a group of ethnolinguistics who speak the Sino-Tibetan language. This minority ethnic group is not known by many globally as they are comparatively few and reside a low-key life.

They mostly reside in Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand; in fact, they are the largest ethnic minority group on the island, estimated to have a 1,000,000 population. This ethnic group started to migrate from Tibet to Myanmar and Northern Thailand in 1984; today, these people have found a new home along the Thai-Myanmar border, and hence are known as the Karen Hill Tribe. Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai are some cities where Karen people are also settled.


Karen Hill Tribe


A brief history of the Karen People

The Karen people are not natives of Thailand; unlike other ethnic groups, this group arrived way before the Thai people did to Mon-Khmer Empire (known as Thailand today). Karens are originally from Tibet and migrated to Myanmar and Thailand, through China, when Burma was annexed by British and Christian Missionaries started to invade their territories. To save their life, faith, and sanity, many escaped while people who were left were converted to Christianity forcefully, and their language was romanized.

The first Karen refugees that came to Thailand were in 1984 and found solace in the northern side of the country. They lived in refugee camps for years. Gradually they made their way to others parts of Thailand, and some even went to western states. However, a large population of Karen people in Thailand resides in the hills (northern Thailand) and are by far the largest Hill tribe of the country of not the world.

The Karen People or the Karen Hill Tribe of Thailand are mostly known as 'Pakanyor' and have divided themselves into subgroups. These groups are scattered across the northern countryside of Thailand and established their own villages with their respective practices, language, customs, and dressing. There are four major subgroups of the Karen Tribe; the Sgaw (White Karen), Po (Red Karen), Pa-O, and the Kayah. The major difference between all these groups is by far their language; each group has a different dialect, tonality, and vocabulary.

Few Karen people in Thailand live in remote areas in primitive conditions such as in a bamboo house and are not thriving as their fellow group.

Distinct Features of the Karen People


Karen People are divided chiefly into three religious groups; Theravada Buddhists, Animism, and Christians. Karens who live on the lowlands tend to be more orthodox Buddhists, whereas highland Sgaw-speaking Karens tend to be heterodox Buddhists who profess strong animist beliefs, while 15% from both the areas are Christians; collectively.

However, irrespective of these religious belonging, many Karen people tend to follow their own ethnic religion. The Karen Hill tribe's life circles around spirits and superstitions; they believe that the spirits control the way of life, and amongst them, the Spirit of 'Land and Water' holds much importance in their lives as it caters to their agricultural practice.

The Karen People's villages practice various spirit festivals over the years to please the spirits. The chief of the village is a revered figure who conducts all the rituals and sets the days of the events and ceremonies.


Festival in Karen village



Karen people had their distinctive language known as the 'Karen Language' until the Christian missionaries Romanized their language and tonality forcefully. The Karen language is one of those languages that are tonal and monosyllabic in nature. And though the language has been highly impacted, Karen people still speak their native language in Thailand, though the subgroups of these people have different tonality and dialect. And despite all the hurdles the languages faced, it is still used to converse and is being read, written, and taught in Thailand; however, it is done using roman alphabets.


The Karen people mostly rely on agriculture and occasionally livestock; they are the only tribe in Thailand with elephants and use them for work. For Karen people, elephants have been part of their lives for ages; they play a vital role in agriculture practice.

Agriculture is an integral part of the Karen tribe's sustainability; the residents of the lowlands cultivate the irrigated paddy fields. At the same time, people of the mountains practice slash and burn agriculture. However, both the groups shift their fields. The Karen tribe produces rice, corn, soybeans, cabbage, and coffee.

Other than that, they are popular for their silversmithing skills in the country. They have to produce premium quality silver beads and jewelry, with remarkable, intricate styles that are exported all over the world—the Karen hill tribe's silverwork functions as an industry in Chiang Mai and across northern Thailand.


Karen woman at work



These people are known for their long necks; in fact, their women are known as 'Giraffe Women' globally as they have long brass coils around their necks from a young age to lengthen their necks; as the tribe believes that long necks are a sign of beauty.

However, it's a common misconception that every Karen women are Giraffe women; only a few subgroups follow this practice; The Red Karen group (Kayan Lawhi). This group migrated to Thailand from Kayah and Shan state in Myanmar after the political and ethnic conflict in Burma. These refugees have a long-standing custom of coiling necks. Hence, when they settled here, the Long Neck Karen Village came into existence.


Long neck woman



Tunics, turbans, and sarongs are common attires of Karen people; their clothing is handwoven chiefly done by the females of the family. Turban is also a common, handwoven by the females of the family. Wearing a metal coil around the neck is also a part of the attire of some subgroups; for example, Giraffe women of The Red Karen group.

The clothing varies amongst the subgroups of the Karen people; however, the one costume custom that all the groups follow religiously is that the married and unmarried women have distinctive dresses and dressing styles. An unmarried woman is made to wear a long plain white tunic dress cover her whole body till ankles. In comparison, a married woman is allowed to wear a sarong and other attires with bright colors with elaborate patterns.