From the Blog

December 26, 2015

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand Where these ancient and persecuted people, who have no surname, believe both Buddhism & spirits can live together


The Karen are known as Kareang, Kariang, Kayin, Pwo, Sgaw and Yang and are an incredibly diverse people, with many different ethnic and language sub-groups. While there are two main groups in Thailand; the Sgaw (Skaw) who are the largest and who refer to themselves as Pagayor, meaning “human.” and the Pwo Karen (who call themselves Ploe). There are also two smaller and lesser known groups: the Kaya (known as the Baway), and the Dtawng Soo (known as the Pa O).

Although the customs and traditions of these four groups are quite similar to one another, their style of dress is definitely unique and distinct, enabling them to easily distinguish between each other.

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand


The Karen people can be traced back to the twelfth century and it is thought that they originally came from Tibet, moving through China, Myanmar and then finally to Thailand. (The majority arriving in Thailand as recently as the late 1940’s, escaping the persecution of the Burmese government troops) It is believed that the Karen and Mon were the first groups to settle in Burma more than two thousand years ago. While the Mon had their own literature and writing, there are very few written records of the Karen.

Their numbers and location

Most of these Karen groups reside primarily in the Karen State, southern and southeastern Myanmar where they make up approx. 7% of the total Burmese population and where they are the second largest ethnic minority group after the Shans. Here in Thailand there are as many as 510,000 which make them by far the largest group of people who make up the Hill Tribes of Thailand.

The Karen of Thailand mostly live in the more remote mountainous areas due west of Chiang Mai in the Mae Hong Son Province. The Karen call themselves Pwakin-nyaw and are also known as Kariang to ethnic Thais, (กะเหรี่ยง or ยาง) The Karen do not like to be referred to as Burmese they are a completely different group and many will not even speak Burmese. While they have come from the country of Burma, it was not by choice it is the Burmese that have driven them from their homes. Therefore many Karen will not identify positively with the Burmese.


The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand 1


The Karen are often confused with the Padaung hill tribe, best known for the neck rings worn by their women, but they are just one sub-group of Red Karens (Karenni), one of the tribes of Kayah in Kayah StateMyanmar.

One of the reasons that there are so many diverse dialects, languages and customs in Karen society can be explained by the fact that it is not necessary to have Karen parents to be Karen. Many Karen say that to be Karen a person must identify as Karen; know Karen culture and customs; and speak a Karen language. There are also a number of Karen sub-groups, and some ethnic groups that maintain a distinct identity but see themselves as “cousins” of the Karen.


While the majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists (as is 95% of the population of Thailand) they also practice animism, for most Karen there is no conflict between the practices of the two religions. (Approximately 15% of Karens are Christian).


Animists believe the world is inhabited by spirits that are usually (but not always) invisible to humans. These spirits may live in trees, in rivers, in mountains, in normal houses, or houses built specifically for them. Some of these spirits are dangerous, and protective measure must be taken against them. For example, spirits cannot climb an odd number of rungs on a ladder so ladders to Karen houses always have an odd number of rungs.

Spirits that live in villages or houses are much like elderly relatives: morally conservative and easily angered, but they can be placated if shown respect and offered gifts.

An important Karen Animist belief is that everyone has thirty-seven klar (also known as ‘Khwan’ or spirits) living within them: thirty-six minor klar and one major klar. If one or more minor klar wander away from the body the person may become sick. If the major klar wanders away they may become crazy. In either case a traditional healer will hold a wrist-tying ceremony where the wandering klar is lured back with gifts of fruit, rice and betel nut. A white string is tied around the wrist of an adult, or the neck of a small child, to prevent the klar wandering away again. If all thirty-seven klar leave, a person they will die.

For more on the Karen of Ratchaburi  in Western Thailand and their annual event regarding the Klar, see our post  Khao Ho or Ang Mi Thong Festival


The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand 2

Death Rituals

It is believed that in the after-life one will have to work in the same way that one worked while still alive here on earth. Thus, a person’s personal belongings must be passed on to them for use in the spirit world. These essential items include; a shoulder bag, a knife, pot, bowl, cup, matches, potatoes, rice and banana seedlings, tobacco, betel nut and pepper, etc. all are placed in a container and buried under a tree so as the deceased person can use them.

The Karen believe the kla (see Animism above) leaves the body at death; eventually it will be reincarnated in a proper body but, as a ghost, it can possess the body of another person. On their return from the burial ground villagers will erect obstacles to prevent the kla of the deceased from following and to warn other family members. To further help the Kla and in traditional villages family and friends gather to sing eulogies and make music (today this may take the form of very loud amplified pop music) to send off the newly liberated spirit and ensure that it does not remain in the place of the living. This is another reason why the deceased possessions are removed from the village as it is believed they still emanate with the owners Kla.


The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand 3

Employment, Religious Practitioners and Headman

Each village is presided over by two head-men; an appointed’ head-man, who is both the ritual specialist who leads the ceremony to the Lord of Land and Water and

who represents the villagers in external and political affairs; and a ‘people’s’ representative headman, who is elected by the villagers.

Village life is run by various committees ensuring a consensus of opinion on all decision making. There is a village committee for education and agricultural issues etc and the people’s headman will be part of that group.

There is one other important person within the village that of the eldest woman of the senior line of the matrilineage, who officiates at the sacrificial feast for the ancestral spirit, bgha. Both she and the appointed Head-man are believed to be endowed with pgho, a term for supernatural power


Karen people of Thailand

Saeclee dance, a courtship dance common to the Karen people

Karen traditional clothing

Traditionally Karen men wear a sarong and a sleeveless shirt, (it is more common today to see black, or steel blue-colored pants) bachelors still wear a red shirt, while unmarried Karen women wear a long white dress, which stretches down from the shoulders to the ankles,  called the “Chay Kwa,”, once married Karen women begin wearing a black shirt known as “Chay Mo Soo,” accompanied by a single tube-shaped skirt and are no longer able to wear the “Chay Kwa,” The design of male shirts and sarongs are different to female shirts and sarongs, and males and females tie their sarongs in different ways. Different Karen sub-groups have different designs for their clothing, but all follow the same basic pattern.

hill tribes of Thailand the Karen


Karen people (like most people in Burma) traditionally have given names only; they do not have a family name. When Karen names are written in English they often have several parts, but the last part of a name is not a family name.

Names may indicate the position within the family. A son might be called Maung Maung (“youngest son”) while a daughter maybe called Paw Moo Dar (“youngest daughter”).

They will often be known by a nickname rather than by their given name. This nickname may be the name of their village, or refer to a physical attribute. For example, Naw Baw means “Miss Fatty”.

Karen parents or grandparents are often called by the name of their oldest child or grandchild, even by their partners. For example, Naw Paw Htoo’s father might address his wife as Naw Paw Htoo Mor, or “Naw Paw Htoo’s Mother”.



1922 Karen

1922 Karen weaving

Other Interesting Facts and Beliefs

Food plays a central role in Karen culture. A common Karen greeting is Aw mee wee lee ar – “Have you finished eating?” which is the same as “How are you”

Do take your shoes off before going inside a Karen home, even if you are told it is okay to leave your shoes on, or you note the home owner wearing shoes, as some Karen have separate “house shoes” they only wear inside their house.

Do not go into the bedroom or kitchen of a Karen home unless you are specifically invited

Children should not eat:

  • Chicken heads as they believe the child will argue with the parents
  • Chicken Hearts as they believe the child will be lazy
  • Chicken legs as it will make the child want to wander.

The Karen people in Burma have been fighting an almost seventy-year civil war against the Burmese military regime for autonomy and cultural rights

Between 2005 and 2011 almost seventy thousand refugees from Thailand, most of them Karen, were resettled in third countries including America, Canada and Australia.

Folding one’s arms in front of oneself when talking to another person is a sign of respect.


Karen in Thailand


For more on our posts regarding other ethnic people of Thailand

The seven Hill Tribes of Thailand

A snapshot of the Phuan

The Haw in Today’s Thailand

The Yong and their Salak Yom Festival

Sea Gypsies

The Mon people

The Shan the forgotten Hill Tribe

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