The Karen People - Chiangmai Elephant Land

The Karen people are a culturally and linguistically diverse ethnic group living in South-East Asia. Approximately seven million Karen people live in Burma (Myanmar), about half a million Thai-Karen have ancestral villages are in Thailand, and smaller groups live in India and other South-East Asian countries. There are about 140,000 Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand following the ongoing conflicts in Myanmar, with a further 50,000 Karen refugees resettled in America, Canada, Australia, and some European countries. Although many new generation Karen can speak Thai, their native language has its origins in the Himalayan mountains.

Traditionally Karen people practiced spirit worship which has coexisted with Buddhism and following the arrival of the missionaries, some 15% are now Christians. Hence it is not uncommon to see both Buddhist temples and Christian churches in Karen villages.

In Thailand, most Karen people live in small mountain villages, where they grow rice, feed corn, other vegetables and raise animals. Some of this produce is sold to the special “Royal projects”.

Karen women are also known for their fine cotton weaving, such as clothing, blankets and shoulder bags. This is traditionally done on a small “Backstrap” loom in the home. The thread is dyed with natural or artificial colors. Girls learn their craft from a young age, and this can provide an income throughout their life. All Karen people have at least one traditional woven outfit and a bag. A woman’s dress takes about two months to weave.

In northern Thailand, the Karen people have been referred to as the elephant keepers of Thailand. Long before the official demise of logging operations, many of these animals entered the boom in elephant tourism which played a significant role in their life and community income. Some of these experiences were good and some not so good. Now, with greater awareness of ethical elephant tourism, Karen owners are releasing their elephants into community-managed forests, rejecting the old, exploitative business practices of some badly run camps. Here the elephants are separated from precious village crops and they can forage naturally on the forest vegetation. Currently, tourists are beginning to visit and the elephant owners and villagers are able to generate some much-needed income. After suffering from the economic downturn due COVID-19, it is very empowering for these communities to develop independent businesses while improving their elephants’ quality of life. The outlook is looking much better for all.

Sources of information:

  1. Karen Culture and Social Support Foundation, The Karen People. Available at: [accessed August 2022]
  2. Cowan, C. (2022) Thai tourism elephants are ‘far better off’ in forests: Q&A with photographer Adam Oswell. Available at: [accessed August 2022]
  3. Karen Women’s Organisation, Background of the Karen People. Available at: [accessed August 2022]