The Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai : My friendship over candied fruit peel

Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai

Are you looking for information on the Karen tribes? Want to know who they are and where they live? Want to meet the Karen tribe on your trip to Thailand? Then , you have come to the right place.

For, we have it all covered in this extensive write-up on the Karen tribes.

Firstly, the Karen tribes are one of the seven ethnic nationalities belonging to Burma (Myanmar). However, finding a large group of the Karen tribe in the hills of Chiang Mai on my trip to northern Thailand, was quite surprising.

And this casual meeting with members of the Karen in Thailand, who dwell in the mountains of the Doi-Inthanon, turned out to be a revelation.

Into the world of the Karen people

This post is a tribute to the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai and scores of women who go through the journey of ‘life’ all too silently with great resilience, across various households — from posh homes to refugee camps.

Each one’s struggle may be different but the struggle is real, and invariably stems from the fact that she is born a woman. So, supporting each other in the right spirit and in truthful ways, is the way forward to real ’empowerment’.

Come with me as I take you into the world of the Karen in Thailand, the living conditions of the Karen tribe, the organic forest products that are produced by the Karen people, the sub-communities of the Karen, and more…

A Karen woman with her baby

My first tryst with the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai

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 skeptical thoughts of mine. They look genuine.

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

You may also want to watch my video on the 25 things to do in and around Chiang Mai

Karen of Thailand

I am unable to fathom that a remote region of Doi Inthanon in northern-Thailand, with a sparse population, has access to technology, and the last thing I expect is bollywood movies.

And above all, I am in a market of the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai, who are refugees from Myanmar, settled in the bordered mountainous regions of Thailand.

Many of these Karen 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 a few words from Indian tourists like me. And, she is using them to impress and strike a chord with me as a customer.

In 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 the Indian Hindi Cinema, as I am a woman. Would she have shared this with others? I doubt…

Friendship over Candied Fruit Peel with the Karen tribe

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 the Karen lady a photo of my family with Shahrukh Khan. Her eyes brighten up and she squeaks in happiness having recognized him.

She enquires if I am related to Shahrukh and is a little disappointed when I respond negatively. Soon I strike a conversation and get to know her name. 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 Tribe in Thailand.

We exchange pleasantries and she cajoles me to give her bytes about Bollywood. She introduces me to her friends from the Karen tribe and informs them that I am an Indian.

I offer the crisp notes of the Thai Baht 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 Doi-Inthanon 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!”

History of the Karen people

The Karens historically are believed to be from the land of Tibet and China and had migrated thousands of years before, to the hilly regions of eastern Burma, what is now Myanmar.

Post colonization of Myanmar in 1886 and subsequent independence granted to it in 1948 deprived the settlers of their rights to hold their land.

Subsequent military regimes did no good to the Karen tribe and the other ethnic communities of Myanmar. This forced many Karens to flee Burma and seek refuge in neighbouring Thailand.

Some of them have subsequently migrated and moved to the United States, Australia, and Canada.

Religion of the Karen tribe

The Karen people like most hill tribes have been animists for centuries. However, the colonization of Burma forced many of them to convert to Christianity. Over the years, the Karen people have been identified to be followers of five main religions :

  1. Animism
  2. Buddhism
  3. Christianity
  4. Lehkai ( prohibits the consumption of meat and alcohol)
  5. Telahkon

Where do the Karen people of Thailand live?

The highest mountain in Thailand, 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. The fleeing Karens settled in refugee camps in this hilly region of Northern Thailand.

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 also largely concentrated in further North of Thailand, near the Myanmar border.

Read about the 25 things to do in and around Chiang Mai. And, how to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary while in Chiang Mai.

Sub-divisions of the Karen tribe in Thailand

The Karen tribes in Thailand are divided into four main sub-groups: White Karen, Kayan Lahwi, Black Karen, and Red Karen.

Most of these Karen 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 run by the Karen people 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 run by the Karen people are a source of livelihood for these tribes.

Wachiratan Waterfall
Tribal Wear
Karen-Tribes-in-Chiang Mai
A Karen woman selling forest produce
A glimpse of the vibrant Karen tribe market

Colourful markets run by the Karen people of Chiang Mai

There are mini-markets run by the Karen Tribe in the hills of Chiang Mai that stock farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.

A heap of fruits looking like mangoes with a pointed nose turned out to be the Canistel fruit.

They also sell different fruit wines, nuts, handmade woolen articles of clothing, handicrafts et al. And the women belonging to this tribe are indeed super-women who manage it all…

You may also want to read about the best food market in Bangkok

Canistel fruits
Karen-Tribe-market-Chiang Mai
A stall run by the Karen people

The varied occupations of the Karen tribes

Apart from farming which is the main occupation of the Karen people, the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai is also famous for their weaving skills.

Not surprising as weaving is one of the main folk art of hill tribes. The Karen men work at home as artisans and craftsmen too.

Their clothes and handicrafts are uniquely skilled and are dominated by the favourite hues of the Karen tribe — red and blue. For the Karen tribe, red stands for bravery, white for purity and sincerity while blue stands for honesty.

The traditional outfit of the Karen people

Many of the Karen people wear their traditional outfits. Also, unmarried women and men dress differently from married ones. I also observed that a majority of youngsters among the Karen tribe in Chiang Mai have switched to western outfits.

For example, Karen men wear a longyi ( similar to the Tamizh lungi) and a sleeveless shirt while the married women wear a sarong( wrap-around) and a sleeveless shirt(usually black). Unmarried women wear long white tunic or dress.

Candied Fruit Peel and Wines galore

Language of the Karen People

Karens do not speak Thai in general, although the Karen tribe in Chiang Mai have picked phrases and words from the Thai language over the years.

There are many dialects apart from three main Karen languages which are – S’ghaw Karen, Western Pwo Karen, and Eastern Pwo Karen. The widely one out of the three being the S’ghaw Karen.

Long Neck Kayan Women of the Karen Tribe

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

I did not tag along with our group to the village of this long-necked Karen tribe 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.

Long-Neck-Karen-Tribes-Chiang Mai
A Long Neck Karen / Source: Pixabay

Traditions of the Longneck Karen tribe

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 rings from the age of 5-6years. They start with 5 rings around their neck and subsequently, two rings are added every year.

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.

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 Karen 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 people in Thailand who were playing alongside the stalls, unaware of a refugee’s life.

A Karen girl following the Kayan tradition / Source: Pixabay
A Long Neck Karen community at work / Source: Pixabay
The little Karen girl I befriended at Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai
A Karen child

Some more stories of inspiring women

I have shared my experience and interactions with the Karen Tribe 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 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 through travels!

You may read about some more stories about inspiring women working at the Bo Sang Umbrella Village

The pristine Doi Inthanon National Park

I hope you liked reading this post on the Karen tribe and also enjoyed my interactions with the Karen people on my trip to Chiang Mai in Thailand. 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!


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Read about my friendship with the Karen Tribes of Chiang Mai in this travel story #Asia #Thailand #KarenTribes #ChiangMai #Travel #TravelStory #TravelBlogger

Read about my friendship with the Karen Tribes of Chiang Mai in this travel story #Asia #Thailand #KarenTribes #ChiangMai #Travel #TravelStory #TravelBlogger

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37 thoughts on “The Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai : My friendship over candied fruit peel”

  1. Hi there,

    Just wanted to say that I love your content. Keep up the good work.

    My friend Jordan from Thailand Nomads recommended your website to me.


  2. Hi there,

    Just wanted to say that I love your content. Keep up the good work.

    My friend Jordan recommended your website to me.


  3. Ive always wanted to go to Chiang Mai but Ive never heard about Karen Tribes before! Its so interesting and I love that you actually went there to get to know the people who live there not just take cute photo with elephant! Its so sad those girls have to wear those rings and be a tourist attraction !

  4. That’s a lovely story. Friendships can be made everywhere and over anything. We’ve made friendships while volunteering to click a photo of a newly wed couple and once with a monkey while refusing it our pizza slice. It is sad to see the plight of the women in a community with a skewed idea of beauty and it is lovely to see you’ve brought across this point while writing about them. Love your pictures and your story and hope to read more of them going forward.

  5. It’s pretty sad to note how these girls are forced to wear the rings just for tourism. I saw this in Ladakh too where the Aryan people don their costumes only to entertain tourists. It just does not feel right! In anycase, loved your friendship over the candy. Quite a heart warming story.

  6. This is just one proof that it’s a small world. It is very interesting to share our culture with others and it gives a certain feeling of excitement when some can relate to what we are saying.

    Thank you for sharing your story and it is a reminder for us not to judge others immediately.

  7. Isn’t it interesting how we make assumptions about those we come across in our travels? I loved hearing how you and Phen bonded over the Bollywood movies. The Karen Tribe women really are super women who keep their families going even as refugees. I do worry about the long neck Kayan women and their health. While I’m glad that the younger women have a choice, I worry that we as tourists are encouraging them to do something that is not good for their bodies.

  8. I loved reading about your meeting with Phen! It was a great way of reminding us not to automatically jump to certain assumptions about people. I think even without her brother working in the industry, Shahrukh has the ability to reach all four corners of the world ;) In fact, before I met my boyfriend (he’s Malayali), I only knew of 2 Bollywood actors – Shahrukh and Salman Khan, and I remember him being absolutely astounding that I’d even heard of them, coming from Wales and a very much non-Indian family.
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post about a group of women I knew nothing about! I really enjoyed reading!

  9. I had visited the long neck tribes while in Chiang Mai and had no idea that the rings around their neck smashed their rib cages down, rather than stretched their neck. Sounds very brutal. Thanks for sharing this article, it was very informative.

  10. It is great to know that you got a chance to meet the Karen tribes. Chiang Mai is a really pretty place in Northern Thailand and a gateway to go up north and meet these different tribes. You went along with them so well. Plus, you really took some beautiful pictures.

  11. What a great read! It takes so little to tie a friendship with another woman, doesn’t it? You transported me right into that market of Chiang Mai. I know very little about this part of the world which I find so fascinating. Some years ago I’ve seen a documentary about the Karen Tribes of Chiang Mai. It really saddened me to see these women wearing those metal rings around their necks, but it was my understanding they do it with pride as this is their custom. I’d really love to visit Thailand.

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. 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!

  24. 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!

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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!

  29. 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.

  30. 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!!!

  31. 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.

  32. 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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