larger text smaller
Overview
ชนเผ่ากะเหรี่ยง หรือ ปกาเกอะญอ
ชนเผ่ากะเหรี่ยง หรือ ปกาเกอะญอ
The Karen, who call themselves Pwakin-nyaw and who are known as Kariang to ethnic Thais, are one of the largest hilltribes in Southeast Asia with a total population of about three million spread throughout Burma, Laos and Thailand, which makes up half of the total hilltribe population in Thai territory.

Karen people in Thailand are found along the western border area, from Mae Hong Son province in the north down to Ratchaburi and Petchaburi provinces west of Bangkok. They live in forest and highland areas, mostly doing subsistence rice farming.

In Thailand the largest concentration of Karen live in Chiang Mai province, about one third of Thailand’s Karen population. The Sgaw are the largest group of Karen. All the Sgaw Karen share a common language and biological characteristics. They also share a cultural heritage. This includes Karen history, tales, legends, myths in songs, poetry, and prose; religious rituals; and preferences for dress and food. Their villages have between 10 and 200 houses.
Language
The Karen languages is spoken in lower Myanmar (Burma) and on the borders of Thailand. The Karen languages are usually divided into three groups there are northern, central, and southern.

The Karen languages are difficult to categorize as to linguistic family. They differ from other Tibeto-Burman languages in certain aspects, and yet they do not seem to fit other classifications. Many linguists now refer to them as the Karenic group of the Tibeto-Burman family.

All Karen languages are monosyllabic agglutinated speech, with no final consonants in Sgaw Karen and with nasals and finals in other dialects. These are all marks of Sinitic speech. Dr. D.C. Gilmore believes that the Pwo dialect branched off from the parent stem earlier than the Sgaw, but kept the original nasals and, being in closer contact with outside races, adopted more outside words. The Sgaw has dropped the final nasals, because they were more difficult to pronounce, but has kept the original form of the language to a greater extent than the Pwo. Pwo Karen has six tones. In Burma a Burmese script is used to write down the language, in Thailand a modified Thai script is used. There are only 26 of the 44 Thai characters used, in the Thailand Pwo Karen Script.
Lifestyle and House
Karen's Houses
Karen's Houses
Occupation
Karen or Paka-Kyaw are a people known for their love of peace, tranquility, and solitude. They prefer to reside in remote forested areas. Most Karen work as farmers--a profession that allows them to be indepedent and free. Liviing in the mountains and forests, they plant according to the seasons and the soil conditions of the area. The food they produce has been for personal consumption, not for sale to others. This holds true for raising animals. Chickens, pigs, etc. would be consumed by the family raising them, or amongst friends and relatives in the village. Relying on the water and the forest for their livelihood, they are deeply connected to the cycles of nature.
Houses
The Karen traditionally build simple houses on stilts, usually using split bamboo for walls and floors, with roofs made of thatch or grass. Chickens, pigs, buffalo, and cattle are kept under the house at night. All traditional Karen houses have a spacious, partly covered veranda which is used for preparing food, weaving, doing other work, and as a place to chat with friends and accommodate overnight guests. The houses usually consist of 1-2 rooms, one of which is used as a sleeping compartment.
Cultural and Traditional
Among hilltribes in Thailand, the Karen have a distinct advantage. The size of the Karen population and their unification in their religion allow them to adapt while still retaining their cultural identity. Traditionally the Karen collected food from the forest (bamboo shoots, mushrooms, wild vegetables, fish and small mammals). They also used the bark and bulbs of some trees as medicine. They believe that their ancestors taught them the way to live without destroying the forest ecosystem. The smallest social unit among the Karen is the nuclear family, which occupies one household. Most households are made up of a husband, wife, and any unmarried children. But it is also common for younger married couples to live with the parents of the wife for 1-3 years before building their own home on the compound of the wife’s parents home or on a separate piece of property.
Marriage and Family
According to Karen tradition, unmarried couples are not supposed to touch each other, unless they intend to wed. Usually Karen husbands and wife stay together for life. Adultery is considered a major taboo. Harmony and family go hand in hand. Karen strive for both.
Religious, Beliefs, and Rituals
Most of the Karen population in Thailand and Burma is Christian and has been for multiple generations. Christian Karens are very strong in their beliefs. The most important person in the traditional non-Christian animist Karen village is the priest. The priest is always a man who has inherited his position from the deceased priest from his father’s lineage.

The religion of the Karen majority is Animism and Buddhism although there is a sizable population of Christians among the Karen. Christians constitute roughly 30% of the Karen population and their traditional belief is animism, their practices consist principally of attempts to gain the favour of the spirits that surround them. Since they believe in many different kinds of spirits or “gods”, they always have to give sacrifices to, and seek counsel from these supernatural forces before they start a journey, before hunting, buying animals, or taking part in any business ventures.
New Year's eve ceremony (Nee Saw Ko)
"Nee Saw Ko," is Karen for "New Year's eve." This tradition is put on each year during the month of January, following the end of season harvest. New Year's is a very important event for the Karen, as it is the time of year when friends and relatives who have moved away, either for work or because of marriage, will all return home to celebrate. Essential items which should be prepared before the big day include: All different kinds of desserts, such as sweet boiled sticky rice, sweet sticky rice in bamboo, rice mixed with sweets and fats, etc. These desserts will be used in a ceremony to pay homage and respect to the spirits.
Easter day
This is important for the Karen people who are Christians. It is the day God is reborn, usually falling on the 21st of March every year. The Karen people believe that Jesus allowed the Roman soldiers from Israel to nail him to the crucifix as purgation for the humans in the world. After he died, people moved his body to a tunnel. Jesus was reborn on Sunday, 3 days after he died. So on Easter day, the Karen wake up early in the morning and go to the graveyard. They prepare flowers as reverence for their ancestors’ dead bodies. When everyone is ready the religious leader leads the religious ceremony.
Dress
Style of dress for Karen or Paka-Kyaw
Style of dress for Karen or Paka-Kyaw
The Karen residing in Thailand can be divided into two large groups: The Sgaw and the Po. In addition, there are also two smaller and lesser known groups: the Kaya (also known as the Baway), and the Dtawng Soo (also 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. Thus, the manner of dress is one tool for distinguishing between the groups and for observing the individual beauty which each group expresses.

These days, it is only the Po and Sgaw Karen groups which still wear their traditional outfits in daily life. The Kaya and Dtawng Soo have changed in their traditional outfits for more modern wear. The manner of dress not only differs between different groups of Karen, but also even within the same group when spread out over different regions. For example, the traditional dress of the Po Karen from Amphoe Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son province is more colorful than that found in Chiang Mai. Sgaw women in Mae Hong Son and Amphoe Mae Chaem (Chiang Mai province) decorate their shirts with elegant patterns, which are much more detailed than those found in Tak. The patterns of the Po Karen located in Kanchanaburi province are quite different from those found in the North. Karen from the province of Chiang Rai have begun coming up with their own new patterns, adapting to the styles they see around them. They are totally different from anything found elsewhere in Karen tradition. The Karen in Chiang Rai have begun selling their cloth and have come up with little tricks to catch the eye of the buyer, taking advantage of new innovations in technology and drawing inspiration from the fashions of the times. They have created table cloths, for example, with all kinds of fresh new patterns based on those found in traditional Thai art and dress.

One tradition in dress that will likely remain preserved amongst the Po and Sgaw Karen of Thailand is the distinction made between single and married women. A female who has not yet married must dress in a long white outfit which stretches down from the shoulders to the ankles. In Karen it is called the "Chay Kwa," Once a woman has married she must begin wearing a black shirt known as "Chay Mo Soo," accompanied by a single tube-shaped skirt. Once married, a woman is prohibited from wearing the long white Chay Kwa again. As for the Karen men, both Po and Sgaw living in the north of Thailand tend to wear black, or steel blue-colored pants. The Karen men in Tak province and Amphoe Lee (Lamphun province), however, prefer to wear sarongs. Young men from all Karen groups wear red. They differ only in the size, shape and intricacy of the patterns on them. When dressing for special occasions such as New Year's, or a wedding, Karen will try to wear new clothes. If attending one of these special events it will be hard not to notice the obvious attempts made by both young men and women to prim and groom themselves into beautiful perfection, all done in the hopes of catching the eye of the other sex.
Instrument
The Karen originated from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. They later moved to Tibet, Yunan China and then to Myanmar and north-west Thailand. They have an array of musical sounds and styles expressed through a variety of musical instruments.

Buffalo horns: Buffalo horns are used during festivals, courting and for announcing ceremonies.

Lutes, fiddle and tube zither: The three and four string lutes, one string fiddle and the eight string tube zither are played during courting and festivals.

Karen drums: These drums are hung around the waist and played during festivals and weddings.

Karen harp: The eight string arched harp is slung around the shoulders and held to the body like a guitar. Played during courting to the accompaniment of singing, it’s a joy to listen to.
Time is 10:13 in Thailand [ eng | ไทย ]