The Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai : Friendship over Candied Fruit Peel in Thailand

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As the World celebrates another Women’s Day with much fanfare, here is a tribute to the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai and scores of women who go through the journey of ‘Life’ all silently with great resilience, across various households, from posh homes to refugee camps.Each one’s struggle may be different but the struggle invariably stems from the fact that ‘She’ is born a Woman.Let us support each other in the right spirit, in truthful ways and work towards real ’empowerment’!

Karen Woman

Friendship over Candied Fruit Peel

100 baht”, quotes Phen for the fourth time.

I smile, shrug and pursue, “Please give 3 for 200 baht. If I convert this to Indian Rupees it amounts to 400”.

I find the price too steep for the small packet of candied peels though I hate to bargain with these hardworking tribes. She dons a wry smile and gestures in a way that is neither assertive nor negative.

I am bemused. I wonder if this lady with a long white V-neck tunic understood my explanation behind the haggling.

Are you from India? , she asks me. I nod affirmatively.

She proclaims, ‘I love Bollywood movies’ with a wide grin that reaches her stoic eyes. I am stumped yet I manage a half-hearted exclamation of ‘Wow!

In this fleet of a moment, I wonder if it is a routine marketing technique being employed by her to thrust the agricultural products for her quoted price. But her eyes and smile are not in tandem with these sceptical thoughts of mine. They look genuine.

I love Shahrukh’, declares Phen and shocks me further!

Doubts Galore

I am unable to fathom that a remote region of Doi Inthanon with sparse population has access to technology and the last thing I expected was Bollywood movies. And above all, I am in a market of Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai who are refugees from Myanmar, settled in the bordered mountainous regions of Thailand. Many of these tribal settlements lack basic amenities like electricity, proper roads and sanitation.

So, I move away from the candied fruit peels over to other products, take permission to click few snaps of children playing there and enquire the rates of other items on display in the stalls under the thatched roofs.

I conclude that this Karen lady must have picked few words from Indian tourists like me. And, she is using them to impress and strike a chord with me as a customer.On hindsight, I also wonder if she shared with me this interesting piece about herself and her secret fascination for Shahrukh Khan, the Most Popular Actor of Hindi Cinema, as I am a woman. Would she have shared this with others? I doubt…

The Revelation

With these thoughts in mind, I slowly rummage through the mess in my handbag, pick out the mobile to open the photo gallery. I confidently show Karen a photo of my family with Shahrukh Khan. Her eyes brighten up and she squeaks in happiness recognizing him. She enquires if I am related to Shahrukh and is a little disappointed when I respond negatively. Phen keeps shifting her gaze from me to the photograph as if in a daze.

Phen then reveals that her brother is a stunt-man in the Hindi Bollywood industry, thus, squashing my ignorance and preconceived notions about her and the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai. We exchange pleasantries and she cajoles me to give her bytes about Bollywood. She introduces me to her friends and informs them that I am an Indian.

I offer the crisp notes of the Thailand currency in exchange for candied fruit peels at her quoted price with no words exchanged. Finally, we both click a snap together for keepsake!

Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai
Yours truly with Phen

And just before our car was to zoom away on the smooth as butter roads of the mountain, Phen enquires,”Meenu, when are you coming again?”

I am overwhelmed with the guilt of having been judgmental and prejudiced towards a warm and friendly person like Phen and promise her, ‘I shall come back soon to meet you, Phen!”

The Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai

Doi Inthanon is abundantly gifted with waterfalls, gurgling streams, lush fauna and flora and is also home to many hill-tribes. This mountain range which is nearby to Chiang Mai is actually the tapering end of the Himalayan ranges and is also the highest point of Thailand.

Wachiratan Thailand
Wachiratan Waterfall

Also, the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai is by far the largest of the Hill Tribes in Thailand, representing about three thousand people and Doi Inthanon is home to many of them.These tribes are largely concentrated in the North of Thailand, near the Myanmar border and are divided into four main sub-groups: White Karen, Kayan Lahwi, Black Karen and Red Karen.

Tribal Wear
Tribal Wear

Most of these tribes stick to agriculture for their livelihood. They sell their agricultural produce in the markets alongside the mountain roads. It is while stopping by one such tribal market that I got to meet Phen-the Karen lady. Yes, you could shop in the night markets of Chiang Mai too, however, these tribal markets are a source of livelihood for these tribes.

Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai


Tribal markets

Colourful Tribal Markets

These mini markets run by the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai stock farm fresh fruits and vegetables.A heap of fruits looking like mangoes with a pointed nose turned out to be Canistel fruit. They also sell different fruit wines, nuts, handmade woollen articles of clothing, handicrafts et al. And the women belonging to this tribe are indeed Super-Women who manage it all…

Doi INthanon


Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai

Apart from farming, the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai are famous for their weaving skills. The men work at home as artisans and craftsmen too. Their clothes and handicrafts are uniquely skilled. Many of the Karen people wear their traditional outfits. Also, unmarried women and men dress differently from the married ones.

Doi Inthanon
Candied Fruit Peel and Wines galore

I observed that many of the hill tribe people, especially the younger generation, have switched to western outfits.

Thailand is one country apart from India, where I have seen a lot of women juggling multiple chores, having no qualms about it and going about everything with a smile on their face.

The Long Neck Kayan Women

The women belonging to Kayan Lahwi /Padaung tribes are also known as the long-necks. They are concentrated around Mae Hong Son province in Thailand and attract tourists in large numbers.These are another group of Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai.

I did not tag along with our group to the village of the long-necked tribes owing to some work and also my varied views on visiting such a dwelling as part of tourism. I am documenting the information that the group shared with me along with my thoughts on this traditional practice.

Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai
Source : Pixabay

As per the Kayan traditions, the more the rings the prettier the woman. Later, the practice was reduced to only girls who were born at a particular time of a given month. The girls start to wear the rings from the age of 5-6years. They start with 5 rings around their neck and subsequently, two rings are added every year.

Karen tribes
Source : Pixabay

The heavy rings around their necks end up smashing their ribcage and shoulders down over the years giving an illusion that their necks are unusually long.

Long necked tribe
Source : Pixabay

I was reminded of the carbon dating of trees where the rings reveal the age of a tree. Do women not deserve to be treated better than the trees, I wonder and shudder!

Nowadays many girls of the tribe wear these rings, not because of traditions but simply to entertain tourists and help their families make more money.More power to these women to indulge in what they want rather then what has been imposed on them!

As I leave Doi Inthanon, I just pray for a better future for these innocent kids belonging to the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai who were playing alonside the stalls, unaware of a refugee’s life.

Doi Inthanon


Karen Children

The other set of inspiring women were the workers of the Umbrella Village in Chiang Mai.

You may read about them here: Bo Sang Umbrella Village

I have shared my experience and interactions with Karen Tribes of Chiang Mai located in Doi Inthanon, Thailand, a couple of times on other forums but strangely never on my blog here. I still wonder what could have been the reason for ignoring to document this enlightening experience!!!

Anyways, better late than never… to document about a local connection that was forged unexpectedly but is etched in my memory as if it happened yesterday. And, I guess the best way a nomad like me can celebrate Women’s Day is by remembering the wonderful women met on travels!

I am sure each one of you must be having such stories of local connections and about women who made an impression on you … So, why don’t you share few candied fruit peels of your tales in the comments below or leave a link to your blog post on the same!


 Thank you for reading 🙂

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  1. Wow this is awesome – or the fact that you had such an amazing connection with Phen! Loved reading this article and it is sad to see womens ‘rights’ and how they are still treated in certain parts of the world today. We need to stad up for each other – I totally agree with you! Thank you for sharing this story!

  2. Bonita says:

    You are a great writer. You are also good in bringing out emotions in your writing…at first I was worried about you feeling better than the vendor, but you used your writing charm to unweb yourself from a perceived prejudice. I love this post. Happy womens day to you and the women of the Karen tribes.

    1. I am so glad that you liked the post and understood the essence of my writing, Bonita. Thank you so much for your kind words and wishes 🙂

  3. Love this post, Meens. Not just for the lovely pictures but for the way you interacted with them and shared their lives with us. Feel so much of gratitude right now for the privilege we were born in.

  4. I’ve actually heard about the tribes in Thailand! But I think I may have heard about the ones in Chiang Rai. Apparently they live a normal life and then when the tourists come by they dress up in their outfits and put on a show a bit haha!

  5. Keep tempting me to go to Chiang Mai. Bollywood is a great connector – I found a girl singing Arijit Singh songs in a remote school in Raja Ampat. In Jordan, met a Chaiwala who was a Bachchan and Hema Malini Fan – this is one reason I love Bollywood – they are our cultural ambassadors.

  6. Woah!! The reach of Bollywood goes far and wide. Kyan women, reminded me so much of the people of Kohima. Somewhere cultures and traditions are linked, or are similar in many a ways.

  7. What a great experience having a moment of true genuine interaction with the woman at the market. That’s the best part of travel, isn’t it? It breaks my heart to see tourists treat these people like spectacles in a “human safari” and just stop into their villages to snap photos — always better to truly connect with someone.

  8. Such a wonderfully written post. I love your story of Phen and her Bollywood connections and your pictures of the tribe are beautiful.

  9. What a post to read for international women’s day! Love the way you write. Always enjoy reading narrative stories. Thank you for sharing the life of these women.

  10. The Long Neck Karen women have a place in my heart! I loved visiting Thailand myself. Great pictures too 🙂

  11. Such an inspiring post, awesome way to contribute to the Women’s day. I learned so much about these tribes, I’ve been in Thailand but never in this area.

  12. I always thought those women with huge rings on the nake are from Burma. Refreshing to know of their origin from Chiang Mai. The place looked pretty commercialised!

  13. This is a lovely post not just about the tribe but about how amazing women are in general and specially as today is “international womens’ day” Very fitting!

  14. Wow! Wow! Wow!
    I loved this refreshing tribute to Women ! I had seen a docu on this tribe but got to know more through your post.
    Also, absolutely loving the new look of your blog, Meenu!

  15. This was such a vivid narrative pf your experience Meenu! We do tend to be judgemental and wary of new people, don’t we? Only to feel guilty when we realize they are genuine! Loved reading about the Karen Tribes and the long necked kayan tribe. A beautiful ode to strong women from a world so different from ours! Your captures are exceptional as always!

  16. Earnestly, your post is the best women’s day post I read today dear. The candidness of the clicks and the way you weaved it is truly wonderful and I instantly felt connected as Thailand is one country I frequent in every single opportunity. It is one of my forever favourites.

  17. So insightful. Learning about the lives of mountain tribes and these women is inspiring. Befiting post for Women’s Day.

    Sad to see those rings around their necks. So much for beauty! Reminds me of another horrible practice the Chinese women had years ago- tying the feet to bend bones and prevent growth as small feet was beautiful.

  18. Women like these inspire us to live better, fight our battles with a smile and do whatever it takes for the sake of family.
    I shuddered while reading about the Long Necked women, who wear the rings around their neck to earn some extra money for their family. Not once do they think for themselves, isn’t it? Do they really want to wear those rings that are so harmful to their health? I don’t think so. Some may, but most do it for their family.
    A lesson to be learnt!

  19. An inspiring post – and perfectly timed for International Womens Day. I always have conflicted thoughts when I visit other countries and begin to ponder how the womens lives are different to my own. Learning, without judging or assuming, is something I continually work at when I am travelling. Thoughtful article and I enjoyed your story telling.

  20. Shirley Corder says:

    Fun post with lovely pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  21. What a contrast Meenakshi! On one hand we have Phen and may like her whose beauty lies in multitasking and entrepreneurship. On other hand we have Long neck Kayan women who are caged with unearthly norms of beauty. Both the sets of woman however seem to be happy in the situation where they are! Thats amazing!!!

  22. Another great post. Love your IG too! I have never been to anywhere in Asia so Thailand is definitely on my list. The point of married and unmarried women dressing up differently is so unique.

  23. What an awe-inspiring post about Thailand .. I was to plan a trip to Thailand soon by not only making beaches and food as my do to list .. but this time I definitely want to explore north Thailand and the uniqueness of it .thank u for enlightening me . Definitely want to explore the border life of countries

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