Local Knowledge

Who are the Karen?

Karen People in Thailand

The Karen are one of more 70 ethnic minorities in Thailand. The Karen, Kayin, Kariang or Yang people refer to a number of individual Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups, many of which do not share a common language or culture.

These Karen groups reside primarily in Karen State, southern and southeastern Myanmar. The Karen make up approximately 7 percent of the total Burmese population with approximately 5 million people. A large number of Karen have migrated to Thailand to escape war. The fighting began in 1949 and is one of the world's longest running civil wars. Like indigenous people in most of the world do not have land rights.


The Karen languages are tonal languages spoken by some seven million Karen people. They are of unclear affiliation within the Sino-Tibetan languages. The Karen languages are written using the Burmese script. The Karen languages are also considered unusual for not having any Chinese influence. Would you like learn some useful phrases? Check out Noon's online Karen language lessons.

Karen hill tribe woman and elephant


Noon teaches Karen, Thai, and English at Chai Lai.


Karen legends refer to a 'river of running sand' which ancestors reputedly crossed. Many Karen think this refers to the Gobi Desert. There are few written records of the Karen origin story. The Karen people began to inhabit what eventually became Burma about two thousand years ago. They traveled from Tibet and China and settled largely in the hills bordering the eastern mountainous region of Burma. Ethnic groups around this region included the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese and Karen. When the British colonized Burma in 1886, these groups all became part of Burma.

Hundreds of thousands of Karen fled to refugee camps while many others are internally displaced persons (IDPS) within the Karen state. The refugees were concentrated in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. The camps have suffered from overcrowding, disease, and periodic attacks by the Myanmar army. Many Karen are stateless and do not have access to basic human rights. Thailand does not recognize them as refugees but as illegal immigrants. Life in the refugee camps is difficult and uncertain. Refugees are not allowed to venture outside the camps, and can be arrested if caught. They apply for resettlement to a 3rd country, which can take many years or never materialize at all. The Burmese army has planted landmines in Karen state making it unsafe to go back.

Karen IDPs in a temporary shelter


The majority of Karens are Theravada Buddhists who also practice animism, while approximately 15% are Christian. Karen animism is defined by a belief in klar (soul), thirty-seven spirits that embody every individual. Misfortune and sickness are believed to be caused by klar that wander away, and death occurs when all thirty-seven klar leave the body.

Rotational farming is a type of forest management used by the Karen which has been a part of their culture for at least several hundred years. Sacred forests are often seen as reservoirs of local biodiversity that preserve a unique fauna and flora including their medicinal plants. Depending on location and management, sacred forest provide a number of other ecosystem services such as cultural amenities but many of these aspects remain poorly explored. Ecosystem services in the form of medicinal plants from sacred forest can be important for indigenous people in remote areas, since many rural communities depend on wild plants for their diet and livelihood.


Karen hill tribe woman weaving



Karen clothing is handwoven with a loom. Our clothing has meaning. Not all Karen people wear the same clothing, they have identity with age. When they are young and have not already married, they used to wear a long white dress. Once they marry they have to wear colorful shirt with skirt that is wrapped around at their waist. In their own culture if they didn’t obey this tradition, a tiger will come eat them or take them away. Wearing Karen clothes shows our loyalty to our ancestors.

Karen Hilltribe Homestay FAQ

Many of our guests visit Karen hilltribe villages during their stay, either for a day or for an overnight trip.  We always recommend a homestay as it’s a beautiful, peaceful and truly special experience that gives you a real insight into village life in rural Chjang Mai, Thailand. Most guests don’t necessarily know what to expect, though.  Here are some actual questions we’ve been asked about what it’s going to be like.

Will I walk to the village?

It depends!  If you’d rather not walk, we can take you to a village with a road that leads straight there - just ask.  Many guests prefer to trek through the jungle to a more isolated village, though.  It’s beautiful, and it’s amazing to experience life in a village that’s so remote.  Treks to the village are usually about two hours or so, with stops to learn Karen household uses for jungle plants, swim in waterfalls and take in views along the way.


Karen hilltribe thailand

Do the villagers speak English?

Some villagers might speak some English, but most don’t speak it extensively.  But opportunities for education, particularly English language learning, are sparse.  See if you can teach your hosts some new words, and have a go at learning some of theirs.  Or, you can bring a pack of cards and teach your hosts a new game.  Language barriers actually provide an opportunity to connect with people on a human level without the complexity of speech.  We think that’s part of the fun of homestays!  Karen people are very warm and friendly - we think you’ll be surprised how easy it is to communicate, and find it quite enjoyable!  


Will there be lots of people in the village?

Homestays do involve interaction with locals.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that villagers also need to go about their daily lives.  If you arrived in the afternoon, in all likelihood most of the villagers will still be out working in their rice fields.  Hilltribe villages are usually so remote they have to be quite self-sufficient, so they farm all their own rice and other crops.  A village near us called Mor Wah Kee, for instance, grows a large passion fruit crop.  Some is kept for the village, some is sold further afield.  Weaving and crafts are also taken to the city to sell.  So if you arrive and there are only a few children and grandparents around, just take the opportunity to settle in and relax.  Perhaps you can use the time to begin to get to know your host.


Will the villagers put on a show for us?

Part of having an ‘authentic’ experience is seeing people’s lives as they are, not being the recipient of a curated cultural performance.  If someone visited your house for dinner, would you presume to think that they would want to hear you singing to them?  Karen people love to sing, and many of them can play guitar.  Bring a guitar, and then you can play them your favourite songs, and respectfully ask them to share some of their traditional music with you.  That way, you’ve got a fair exchange.  A reciprocal enjoyment of each other’s cultures, and a chance to learn on both sides.


Karen girl thailand

Is the village dirty?

Infrastructure in Western countries is highly developed.  Tap water is clean and virtually free, and public services keep your towns and cities pretty spotless without you having to lift a finger.  Here in rural Thailand it’s really difficult to get clean water.  Remember, too, that in hilltribe villages animals live alongside villagers.  Pigs, for example, are a vital resource for their meat and for reselling, but they can be smelly!  If you were staying on a farm, you’d expect some interesting sights and smells.  Exposure to nature and the elements is part of the jungle experience.  Try to be understanding if things aren’t quite as immaculate as you’re used to, and bear in mind that your hosts will go to every effort to make sure that your food is safe and your sleeping quarters are clean.

Will we eat together with the family who are hosting us?

It totally depends on the family. In Karen culture it’s common for hosts to give visitors food and wait for them to finish eating and then eat whatever is left over. They take pride in being kind hosts and offering the best for the guests.  In the villages, meat is a real luxury.  So while you’ll be eating pork or chicken, your hosts might be eating something slightly less appealing to a Western palate, like squirrel and chili.  By cooking you a separate meal, your hosts are going out of their way to show you respect and consideration.  They might prefer you to eat separately because they are worried their table manners might not meet your expectations. They are used to eating with their hands and may feel shy using utensils. (kind of like you learning to use chopsticks ;)  If this is the case, please take this for what it is: your host trying to make you as comfortable as possible.  

Karen Hilltribe homestays are an excellent way to enjoy the slower pace of life in Northern Thailand and to interact with a new culture while immersed in nature.  To make the most of your stay, just keep an open mind, relax and enjoy!


Soe's farmstay

Soe's farmstay