Interim 1999

Sociology/Anthropology 263:


The Karen of Northern Thailand


Michael Leming, Ph.D.



Sara Dahl, Mee Vang, Caroline Hilk

Heidi Larson, Betsey McLain, Alecia Swenson

Annika Harrington, Heidi Lellman, and Ann Westby

Lillian Harris, Beth Henry, Dan Kuehl, Angela Miller

Brad Lindbergh, Sonja Renander, Sara Ursin, Amy Kirchner


Karen Tribal Museum


The Landscape
Although one can not hold a mountain in one's hand or experience all mountains just by seeing one, the mountains to the Karen are just as much a part of their lives as any other cultural artifact. Northern Thailand is a mountainous region inhabited by the foothills of the Himalayans, home of the largest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. The mountains in Tee Mae Ker Lah however are no where near that height, but for a Minnesotan they are a strong and majestic presence. The mountains are covered with coniferous forest and a little farther up the mountains, beyond the village, the rain forest begins to grow. This forest is the home of one of the most diverse species of trees and plant life on earth. The Karen have always been closely connected to this beautiful land which sustains them. The bountiful land is not always so forgiving and it has made outside communication difficult.

The road from Chiang Mai is a long 5 to 8 hour journey of bumpy, cracked and divided, dry red dirt. The roads have apparently been improved upon but the rainy season makes traveling on them a bit hazardous, if not impossible. Speculation has led me to assume that because of the mountainous home of the Karen they were able to stay fairly culturally and physically secluded as long as they did. Just this year they received decent electricity and now they are able to go down the road to the local store and buy an ice-cream. Ice-cream is just one in a list of products that are being delivered to the area now.

The ecology of the land is changing as well as the lives of the people. Because of the roads there is more erosion. Due to increased knowledge of pesticides and fertilizers learned from the Royal Project there are more water pollution problems. However all is not lost the Thai government is interested in preserving the forest as well as the Karen people themselves. Tongdee, village musician/entrepreneur, says that the Thai government and the Karen have different concepts of water, dirt, forest. Therefore the environment is a big issue in Karen/Thai relations. The Karen have always been environmentally aware and have avoided farming methods which cut down trees. Tongdee says they feared the spirits so they didn't cut down trees, but now the spirit(God) is the law. This connection with nature is part of what it means to be Karen.

Lily Harris

Traditional Karen Home
Perched above the ground the small house looks very unassuming, but the rather simple looking architectural design serves several functional purposes in the Karen lifestyle.

Characteristic of most rural homes in Thailand are stilts, which raise the structure an average of 5-7 feet off the ground. Elevating the house helps protect against flooding, insects, and the intrusion of farm animals. As an added benefit the stilts help to keep the house clean as well.

Primary building materials used in constructing the Karen homes are: bamboo, teak leaves, and various kinds of timber. The frame of the home is constructed out of a sturdy wood, if the family is wealthy they might use teakwood being that it is resistant to termites. As teak becomes more and more scarce and expensive villagers use cement blocks to form a kind of foundation for their homes which also helps prevent insect infestation. Walls and floors of the traditional home are formed with bamboo. Although bamboo has the appearance of being unstable and weak it is capable of supporting a great deal of weight. Frequently now villagers use planks instead of bamboo because wood provides better insulation against the extreme climate changes of the hills.

For the roofing materials the Karen fold several teak leaves over a thin piece of wood and then bind the leaves to each other and to the wood. In constructing the slanted roof the rows of leaves are layered on top of each other creating a thatched roof effect. Teak leaves are popular because they are sturdy and last a long time and do not begin to decompose quickly like banana leaves. Each material used in the construction of a house serves a specific use making the Karen homes both aesthetically appealing and well built.

The layout of the Karen home also illustrates the simple life centered on the family. A sheltered porch common to all traditionally built homes provides a place for socialization. One main room of the house serves as both kitchen and bedroom, with the family usually sleeping around the fire for warmth. Above the rectangular fire pit, which does not have any special designated place in the room, stands a metal shelving system. Two shelves provide storage place for the cooking ware and also a place to dry produce or other foods. The presence of the cooking area within the bedroom serves a dual purpose. When the fire gives off smoke it protects the inhabitants from the swarms of mosquitoes.

At the outset the construction of the Karen home appears simplistic with little decoration or stylistic variation, however, variations on the traditional style continue as families earn more money and can afford bigger homes. What does remain consistent is the practicality of their architecture serving the facilitation of family life and comfort in the face of a harsh climate.

Sonja Renander

Karen Music
The Karen, like most people of the world, play both traditional and contemporary music. To play these two styles there is also a difference of instruments used.

The traditional music is played on a pentatonic (five-toned) scale. This is made up of the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth notes of what we know as a modern octave. They keep a loose structure of what pitch and rhythm the song should be sung in, allowing compensation for peoples' variety of voices and emotion to the song. Traditionally the music is in a minor key, causing a saddened sound to emerge.

Of the traditional instruments of the Karen are harp, Jew's harp, bamboo guitar or fiddle, xylophone, flute, graduated-pipes, gourd bag-pipe, wedding horn, drums, cymbals, and gongs. The instruments were made by the villagers out of elements around them, except for the drums, cymbals, and gongs, which came from the Burmese. The Karen would use the music played by these instruments for dancing, ceremonies, calling to each other in the brush, courting, or just a way to pass the time in musical enjoyment.

Along with Christianity coming to the Karen, the missionaries brought Christian hymns from their land. The Karen enjoyed the hymns, and although not forced to, began to drop their traditional songs for these hymns. Only a few of their traditional songs have been modified into hymns and added to their hymnbook. However, efforts to preserve traditional songs are increasing.

Contemporary music can resemble western music, using guitars as the base for the music. Depending on who has influenced the village, such as missionaries playing songs on guitars, the village follows likewise. Some people who play music a lot prefer to bounce between traditional and contemporary music. They may do this by playing a traditional song on their Karen guitar, followed by a western song on their western guitar. Others use their Karen instruments and create new songs.

The man photographed is Boo Na, a medicine man in Mu Si Khee. He plays traditional instruments but not only plays traditional songs, but also writes some of his own. On our last night in Mu Si Khee, he played a song for our group that he made up. The verses are paraphrased as follows:

Verse 1: Our [Karen] parents are different than other parents because we are poorer. We don't have as many things as they do.

Verse 2: We want to have relationships with others, but we can't because we don't speak their language.

Verse 3: We meet with the educated and rich people. We are not against them - we try to have a good relationship with them. We respect them, humbling ourselves for them.

Chorus: Thanks (to us) for coming to Mu Si Khee. Thanks to God. I hope not to forget you. Without the love of God, we cannot love each other.

Boo Na played this song on a traditional Karen guitar and sang in Karen.

Some information is from page 161 in: Marshall, Harry Ignatius. 1922. "The Karen People of Burma: A Study in Anthropology and Ethnology." University at Columbus.

Dan Kuehl

Karen Men’s Shirt
The Karen men’s shirt has been a symbol of Karen identity well before the Karen began migrating into Thailand over seven-hundred years ago. While all Karen shirts to very somewhat, enough similarity occurs between families and shirt styles to provide for a sense of community to be developed through the wearing of the traditional dress.

Traditionally worn with black or dark colored pants, the traditional Karen shirt is always red in color. Woven often by the woman of the family, or a close relative, the men’s shirts were formally dyed red using all natural dyes from the forests which surrounded the Karen. But as time as prevailed and as evident in the provided example, the Karen have begun to use artificial coloring and dyes to give their clothing a more vibrant look. Upon interview of many Karen men who often wear the traditional red shirt it becomes apparent that the origins of the use of the color red in the men’s shirt is not commonly known among the average Karen. Many Karen men are simply full of pride knowing that they are wearing red, simply because red is the color of the Karen.

The base red color of the Karen men’s shirt is often accompanied by many other colors patterned in horizontal and vertical lines. While the accompanying colors vary on every shirt, blue, green and white most often provide the accessorizing hues. Most, if not all Karen shirts are finished with a blue and white braid attached to the arms and neck of the shirt, as well as long unwoven strings hanging down from the front and side of the garment in various lengths and colors. The bottom half of the Karen shirt is often reverse woven, leaving lines in the fabric, which protrude out from the natural line of the fabric and form a horizontal pattern on the lower half of the shirt.

As Thai influence has increased in the village areas and assimilation has occurred. The use of traditional dress has waned among all but the oldest members of the Karen Tribes. Western styles have infiltrated the Karen and it has become difficult to distinguish many Karen from their Thai counterparts outside of the village setting. To combat this problem villages such as Tee Mae Ker Lah have developed traditions in which traditional dress is worn both to school (for children) on Wednesdays, and to church on Sunday in an attempt to keep the art of traditional dress alive.

Brad Lindbergh

Karen Shoulder Bag
The traditional Karen bag is a necessity for every villager. On any given day, more than half the people walking around a Karen village will be carrying a Karen shoulder bag. This includes school children, adults, as well as the elders of the village. The bags can be used for carrying anything, including schoolbooks, food, and clothes. To the Karen, their shoulder bags are as important to their culture as their traditional clothing.

The Karen bag is similar in style to other hilltribe shoulder bags in their construction. The Karen women weave the bags by hand and are made from two separate pieces of cloth. One piece comprises the strap and the other makes up the majority of the bag itself and the two pieces are sewn together. Although the bags are resemble other hilltribe bags, on examination, the unique characteristics of the Karen bags become apparent. The Karen bags come in a variety of colors, but the majority of them are pastel shades. The bags sometimes incorporate a dark or royal blue, shades of brown, as well as dark red. In the same way the bags are woven and sewn by hand, each bag is dyed by hand through the use of natural dyes.

The bags always have a form of design, which can cover the entire bag, or only the top and bottom sections. Most designs have a geometric style to them such as triangles, squares, or rectangles. Designs that cover the entire bag usually consist of a pattern of lines. Shapes also give character to the Karen bags. Many bags have stars, trees, or small patterns along the top and bottom.

Betsey McLain

Unmarried Woman’s Dress
 Karen girls wear this dress until their day of marriage. It is loose fitting and reaches in length to mid-calf. The dress is made of hand-woven white cloth with red accents around the armholes, v-neck, bottom and below the chest. The bands of color around the bottom and below the chest are approximately one inch in width and often include multiple colors or patterns. Long strings of colored thread hang down at the center of the neck opening in the front and back and also in various other places on the dress. Traditionally, girls wore this type of dress for everyday use but now it is saved for specially occasions such as church, tribal day at school, dancing and celebrations. It is quite acceptable for girls to wear T-shirts or pants underneath their dresses when it is cold. Many younger girls’ dresses become brown with dirt before they are washed.

The women of the village make these dresses. The process is very involved and time consuming. Thread is spun or bought and a loom is set-up to begin weaving the fabric. Four long columns of fabric are made for the four panels of the dress: two in front and two in back. The pieces are then hand-sewn together with a similar thread used for the weaving. Then, colored thread, either dyed naturally or chemically, is then sewn in. Many girls decide the pattern for the strips on their dresses, incorporating crosses or other geometric patterns. Traditionally these strips were completely red. Finally, the red thread around the neckline and armholes is braided and attached leaving long strings hanging down below the openings.

Caroline Hilk

Karen Women’s Skirt
The skirt or sarong is part of the married woman’s costume for Karen women of Burma and Thailand. A thickly woven V-neck tunic accompanies it. On her wedding day, a Karen woman changes into a woven skirt that she has made herself. Until then, Karen women and girls wear a long white dress.

A traditional Karen skirt is intricately woven of dyed threads. The woman’s skirt is made of threads dyed red from the kho plant. Other colors used to complete a skirt design are gold, green, black, blue and indigo. After the threads have been dyed, they are tied in a special pattern personal to the woman. The designs of the skirt differ depending on whether the Karen woman is Sgaw or Pwo, a mountain or valley dweller, living in the North or South and on how recently she has arrived from Burma.

The weaving is done on a simple back-strap loom. It takes a woman approximately 16 hours to completely weave her skirt. When finished, the skirt is wrapped and bunched around the woman’s waist and held up with a cord or metal belt. These days elastic is being used more and more as a waistband.

Amy Kirchner 

The Karen married woman’s shirt
The married woman’s shirt is the focal point of the married woman’s outfit. It is made of hand woven cotton with the fabric color usually being either black or blue. The shirt is spacious and easily removed in order to accommodate the early months of pregnancy as well as convenient access for breast feeding. Often during the morning women will wear a shirt underneath their tribal shirt as the married woman’s shirt fails to provide much warmth The shirt is short sleeved with an elegant v-neck which is frequently hemmed with colorful threads. The top half of the shirt remains the solid color but the bottom half is festively decorated. The main color for the decorative threads and beads is red, which in the Karen culture includes shades of brown, orange, and pink. All of the shirts have some embroidery and when the sewer is finished embroidering they leave the ends of the string hanging down from the front or the sides of the shirt. Another common adornment on the shirts are white or yellow beads that are sewn on the bottom half of the shirt into the embroidery pattern. The bottom of the shirt can either be left frayed or can be hemmed. A Karen woman first adorns the stunning married woman’s shirt on the morning of her wedding as it serves as identification of one’s marriage status. Women continue to wear the decorated shirts for the remainder of their lives.

Sara Ursin

Women’s Karen Necklace
The cultural artifact I chose to feature is the woman’s necklace worn by most married Karen women in Tee Mae Ker Lah and the surrounding areas. The necklaces are simple in design. They consist of small beads that are strung on a cord or string. The beads go all the way around the neck and are about one-half of a centimeter in diameter. The necklaces usually hang down to about the middle of the chest, just below the V-neck

in the women’s blouses. The color of the necklaces is bright yellow and they are worn in multiple numbers with the clothing of a married woman. The contrast of the bright yellow with the bright blue or black blouses worn by the Karen girls gives the necklaces a striking visual effect.

 The necklaces are made out of plastic usually and the materials for them are generally bought in Chiang Mai or other larger cities. The particular necklace that makes up this artifact was donated to the group by Ajarn Tete from her own necklace collection. Since the necklaces are not made from materials naturally found in the village, they have probably not always been a part of the Karen culture. It is unknown how long these necklaces have been a part of the married woman costume. The current form of the necklace could be a relatively new addition to the Karen culture, or it could be a more modern form of another kind of necklace worn earlier by the Karen women.

Sara Dahl 

The Ludee
While walking through a cemetery near the village of Mu Si Khee, one of the villagers who works as a cook at Mu Si Khee, Tattoomo, found a gorgeous iridescent bug. The bug is called the Ludee. Although it is not an artifact, Tattoomo explained that it was used in dying thread. Tete had another idea about its usage. She thought that since the Ludee is rare, that it is now not used for dying. In her village, in Northern India, the Ludee was used as elaborate headdresses for the women. Some members of the group traveled to Koh Samui and found the Ludee bug on necklaces. The idea that the Ludee is rare is interesting. It could be grown for a tourist gimmick, therefore, indeed being rare in the wild, or Tete might be incorrect. It might be very common. In any case the Ludee is a beautiful, fascinating bug.

Angela Miller

Rice Pounder
In Southeast Asia, there are many tools used in the home, fields, and even the cities that most Westerners have never seen. While studying upon Karen culture, in Northern Thailand, the students in my Sociology class ran across the Wheat Pounder. 

The Wheat Pounder is made up of a long slender log. The log is about twenty-five feet in length. The log is then mounted on other wood pieces so that it resembles a teeter-totter. Along one end of the log is attached another log perpendicular to the longer log. This little log runs almost one or two feet long. Then, where this log hits the ground is a hole in the earth. Sometimes, rather than a hole, there is a bowl. Either way, this hole (or bowl) is made up of cemented sand, in order to withstand the log, as it is let go and pounds into the cemented bowl.

In the Hmong and Karen villages, this device is used to pound the wheat (or rice shells) when the rice is harvested. The name of this device in Karen is uncertain but the Hmong call it Cos. Usually, two people would work on this device. One person would step on the stepping end of the tool to raise the log so the other person could toss the wheat (or rice grains) to loosen them up. Also, this toss of the grains is done to reassure so that all the grains are pounded.

In addition to gravity, as the stepping person lets go of his (or her) feet from the log, the log will fall into the bowl and pound the wheat (rice) grains. This device has proven to help ease the chores of many housewives; because after all the wheat is pounded, they are put into a rice shaker. The rice shaker is a separate tool used to loosen the rice shells from the wheat and clean the rice for eating. Without the Rice Pounder, this would be a very hard task.

Mee Vang

The Rice Basket
After the rice is pounded, a few cupfuls of rice are spun around in a basket in order to separate the hard shell and any other leftover remnants of the rice field from the grain of rice. The villager continuously moves the basket in a circular motion and flips the rice in the air to help separate and collect the hard shell and remnants in the middle of the basket. Once the shells and remnants gradually accumulate in the middle, the villager discards them and starts the routine over again. This process usually has to be done three times before the rice is ready to be cooked.

The basket is made of bamboo and also a plant similar to bamboo but is not hollow. Along with the Karen, other hilltribes including the Lahu, Akha, Hmong and Lisu, use the rice baskets as well. Although most of the villagers make their own baskets, they can be bought in the market for 40 Baht, which is a little over a dollar.

Not only do the villagers use the basket for rice, but they also use it for other purposes. Additionally, they use it to dry things, such as tea, flowers, and rinds of passion fruit, which they use to make drinks. Every once in a while, they dry fish on it. Furthermore, it can also be used as simply a surface to cut vegetables or crack peanuts.

Alecia Swenson

Bamboo Cowbell
I had the pleasure of bringing home with me a very special remembrance of the Karen Hill Tribe: a cowbell! The cowbell is made of Bamboo by a wonderful old man named Boon Na. He hand carved the bell that serves as a beautiful sound which leads farmers to their cattle. In the hill tribes the cattle are free to roam the land. There are very few fences to be seen. It is my feeling that the concept of a fence, (to keep something in and another thing out), doesn’t coincide well with Karen culture. Their community seems to be based on trust and sharing, and caring for one’s neighbor.

The bell is carved out so that the hollow inside will make a resonating sound when the two pieces of bamboo come in contact with it. The bamboo is smooth. The outside is pale green, while the inside is white. A rope is strung through the top of the bell and tied loosely around the cows’ neck. It is a sweet sound to the hears as the cattle slowly walk with a clumsy hobble.

Annika Harrington


Bamboo Cup
The Bamboo cup is one of the many handmade crafts that are used in the daily lives of the Hilltribe people. The cups are not limited to casual use; they are also the cups used for formal occasions such as marriage and anniversary celebrations. Bamboo trees are highly prevalent in the region, so attaining the material is not a problem. Also, being naturally hollow, the production of the cups takes a very short period of time. Both of these factors allow the hosts of the celebration to gather the necessary number of cups without a large financial problem. 

The cup is made by taking a bamboo branch and dividing it, utilizing the partitions naturally in the branch to be used for the base of the cup. As a result, the size of the cup is not uniform; however, the cups generally stand between three and five inches tall. Variations to the cup include carving out the lip to accommodate the nose, such that when one drinks out of the cup, the nose does not hit the cup. These carvings have been made increasingly large as more Westerners (who have larger noses) come to the area. The Westerners were appreciative of the modifications.

This particular cup was made by the medicine man in the Tee Mae Ker Lah area, Boo Na. Boo Na stands as one of the elders of the community. A growing concern is that these individuals will die before passing on the skills to create such crafts as the bamboo cup.

Heidi Larson

Opium Weights
Opium production was common among the hill tribe people of Thailand. It was made illegal by the Thai Government, but that has not stopped the problem. There are still many hill tribe people in Thailand who are addicted to opium. These elephants are weights, they were used to measure out the opium. Methods have gotten more advanced, the drugs are coming to Thailand from neighboring countries, and opium is not the only thing. Heroine and amphetamines have become popular, and the drugs today are sold in a more pure form.

Elizabeth Henry

Beetle Nut Jar
Beetle nut, or also known as, Karen gum, is like chewing tobacco in the West. It was chewed for ritualistic along with practical purposes. First a kind of bark is chewed on for awhile. Next, you wrap up the beetle nut in a leaf and put the whole thing in your mouth. It not only makes you a little dizzy but also is used as a form of lipstick. If you chew long enough, your entire mouth will be a brilliant red. The beetle nut is stored in these lacquer boxes. Since beetle nut chewing is not as common of a practice as it used to be, the jars are not easy to come by. The older jars, with a hint of smell still in them are considered to be of some value. There are actually about three jars in one. It is expanding to fit separate containers for both the beetle nut paste and the leaves.

One would think that this would be more of a male ritual, as it is in the West. The truth is, the majority of beetle nut chewers within the Karen society are the women.


Heidi Lellman