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The Karen Hilltribe in Chiang Mai
The Karen began to move into Thailand around the 17th century and occur in large numbers in the western part of Northern Thailand, in particular on the ranges west and south of Doi Inthanon. The main groups in Thailand are White Karen composed of the Skaw and the Pwo sub groups.
The Karen live 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 have 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.
Their desire for harmony with nature may partly account for why the Karen have evolved the most ecologically sound system of swidden agriculture. 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 are famous for their use of beads for ornamentation.