Karen tribes are one of the seven ethnic nationalities belonging to Burma(Myanmar). So, finding a large group of the Karen tribe in the hills of Chiang Mai on my trip to Northern-Thailand was quite surprising. A casual meeting with the members of the Karen in Thailand, dwelling 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. Let us support each other in the right spirit, in truthful ways, and work towards 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…
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 recognizing 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!
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.
The 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 :
- Lehkai ( prohibits the consumption of meat and alcohol)
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
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.
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
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.
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. They are 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.
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.
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
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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