The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand

January 9, 2016 By Richard

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand

Author: Josh at Asia backpackers 

Facts on Thailand, Hill Tribes, North Thailand

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand 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 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 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 (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.

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.


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.

The Karen Hill Tribes of Thailand