Who are the Karen?
The Karen people originate from Burma and currently make up the largest hill tribe community in Thailand as well. The name “Karen” is based on the Burmese Kayin: a derogatory term for non-buddhist ethnic groups in Burma and it refers to a number of different small communities of mountain dwellers. The Karen are struggling to get recognized as an indigenous community: tightly linked to traditional forms of shifting cultivation, honey and medicinal herb gathering, etc.
Although there are many “subtribes” under the two major groups of pwo and sgaw Karen, foreign tourists are usually better acquainted with the so called “Long-neck Karen” who are especially popular due to the idiosyncratic necklaces of metal rings which extend their necks beyond their conventional length .
*all other photos in this post are taken by me but since I don’t have footage of the long neck Karen: here is a nice shot by Instagram user Jennifer Toby who stumbled upon the making of a Nat Geo documentary about the tribe
Curiosity vs Respect
Since I met the Karen as part of a coordinated international attempt to understand more about the deeper needs and concerns of the community, I am wary of the way some foreign visitors just storm their way in the traditional lives of locals driven by the desire to capture something visually attractive and unusual.
In fact, there is a lot to be said about (ab)using traditions for profit and there are some older thought provoking articles like Hostages to tourism, which reveal how visually attractive traditional attributes can be easily turned into a commodity in the worst sense of the word.
Weaving, Arts & Crafts
Most Karen tribes are not part of the highly publicized long neck Karen, but they truly need acknowledgement. They are outcasts, whose indigenous status is not constitutionally recognized and a series of forced displacements have pushed them outside of their traditional mountain regions. By losing the land and the agricultural means to sustain themselves, the Karen truly struggle to make a living.
Weaving, Embroidery, Arts and crafts are among the several occupations which provide relatively employment opportunities, safe working environment and a sustained connection to some aspects of their traditions. As part of a coordinated state effort to provide employment to ethnic minorities many small workshops sell what they have produced and get paid either by a meter of handwoven fabric or a daily wage for embroidering a variety of items. More complex commissions might take several months to complete.
Daiva: a fellow blogger and journalist, writes more about the socio-economic issues faced by Karen workers
As you can see from the photos: many of the handwoven fabrics, shirts, bags, etc. are made in small workshops in villages. Weavers use wooden/bamboo free standing looms which combine manual and mechanical work. Many of the smaller fine details are embroidered by hand later on.
Quite often the work is turned into a social activity: women gather in the shade, surrounded by toddlers who play around or observe the workday.
Many Karen sell their handmade attire and crafts to support their families and communities, so if you are passing through South-Western Thailand (especially Kaeng Krachan national park): ask around for Karen crafts you can buy to support the locals.
You can also take a look at Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade: a page which promotes handcrafted works by Karen, Akhra, Hmong and other smaller communities.
When I look at the pretty colorful embroidery on the rims of shirt, I can’t help but thinking about Bulgarian (and in general- Balkan) patterns, called Shevitza so my guess is if you like one: you will definitely enjoy the other.
Where is Kaeng Krachan?