Karen and Karen Longneck Hill Tribe Information
Thai and Burmese hill tribes can be traced back to the 12th century, originating from Tibet . The Karen tribe is the largest of around twenty hill tribes whose total population today numbers more than seven million across The Union of Myanmar ( Burma ) and Thailand .
In Thailand , around 400,000 Karen live at between 800m and 1800m up in the mountainous and densely forested regions of Mae Hong Son, due west of Chiang Mai. Most villages are remote from Thai civilization. Houses are made of teak or bamboo and usually constructed on stilts to provide space and shelter for livestock.
The Karen villagers have few possessions and little if any furniture, usually sleeping on floor mats, cooking on open fires, and drawing washing and drinking water from a nearby river. They are predominately farmers of agricultural produce for their own use and are often referred to as ‘The farmers of the forest’. Some speak the Karen language, whilst others speak Thai. The Karen lives in villages of around 25 houses raised on stilts. The villages tend to cluster. Each household consists of the parents and their unmarried children. Married daughters and their families may also live in the same house. The highest authority is the village priest who runs the village along with the elders.
The Karen has rituals to live harmoniously with the “Lord of the Land and Water”, as well as with nature spirits in the rocks, trees, water and mountains that surround them. They also have guardian spirits and believe in the soul. They use a system of rotation over a large area of land and do not cut all the large trees down when they clear a plot. They are also the only group to have built terraces to grow wet-rice.
Karen cloth is hand-woven on back-strap looms and is predominantly red with white, blue or brown vertical stripes. Stitching is clear and decorative. The men may wear simple forms of this material in a sleeveless tunic (or northern Thai clothing), while the women wear more elaborate styles on their sarongs. The women’s blouses are made of dark homespun cotton with horizontal embroidered patterns decorated with seeds woven onto the lower half. Unmarried girls of the Skaw group wear plain white shifts. Those of the Pwo are more decorated.
The Karen is famous for their use of beads for ornamentation as well as the silversmith skill. Karen silver has a higher silver content than Sterling silver, being between 99.5% and 99.9% pure silver. It’s just the solder used to fuse the silver components together that makes up the last fractions of a percent. Consequently, it has a weight, bright satin colour, and feel, all of its own. Every piece is handmade and individual. The hand-hammered and chased details are wonderful and you can actually see evidence of each piece having been formed by the hands of Karen craftsmen. These pieces are not usually hallmarked in any way, but we can guarantee their origins.
The relationship between people and elephants
Laotian and Karen belong together with the elephants from the past till now. Chai-ka-tu an elderly in the Ruammirt village, Chiangrai province, relates the history of the people and Elephants, “If you are talking about our people and the elephants, we have had a long historical bond. Even since when we had this land. Like the Paka-Kayaw and the people in the south, the ones in Utharadit, we all live our lives with the elephants” The ancestors of the people in Mae Hong Sorn also lived their lives with elephants and they continue to do so. In Maesariang, Meahongsorn province, the people have their own way of living with the elephants. In the olden times, they had elephants. When they build houses they use elephants to pull the logs. We get the logs from many places. They use the elephants to carry heavy things. They are in the deep forest so when they build houses the elephants pull the logs. During harvest time, the elephants are used to carry the rice because there are no roads for cars. The people have to travel a long distances for work also.
From the interviewing of Phakake-yaw people- “I love it as much as a child or a wife. Sometimes at night I can hear the elephants crying in the forest and I will run to see what is going on even if it is late at night” If you are talking about love, I love my elephant. I love it as much as I love my child and my wife. Sometimes when you bring an elephant back, it also brings skin diseases back with it. I need to bathe it and get medicine for it. I love it like a child, a child that cannot take care of itself sometimes.
We must take care of the elephants. Sometimes when their toenails are cracked we need to put medicine on it to heal it. When they died, I cried for many days. It seems like your relative had died. I didn’t have to study since I was born. I never abandon it or leave it alone, I will be unhappy if I didn’t see it. You can compare it with teachers. They teach the children everyday, and if they don’t see their students for one day, they will feel as if there is something missing, and they will be unhappy. Some days I only get 10-20 Baht but I still do it. Even if I don’t make any money I just want to work with them and take care of them. To find them new places to stay, to bathe them, to feed them…all these things make me happy.
Clothing 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 Amphur 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.