Ethnic Tourism in Thailand: Karen Village and The Women’s Participation

“A hornbill dies, seven banyan trees become lonesome silent; one gibbon dies, seven forests are cast in gloom.” (Karen Proverb)

The Kingdom of Thailand is known to be the land of elephants, and in the tourism industry, it is known to be the land of smiles. Indeed, the capital city “Krungthep”, the newly introduced name of Bangkok, was the most visited city in the world four times in a row before the pandemic hit (Forbes). The accessibility that it offers, the hospitality that it comforts, and the experience that creates unforgettable memories make Thailand a destination for every country’s tourists.


Ethnic Tourism in Thailand

Thailand's tourism map is divided into five parts, however, the two famous parts are known to be the southern with its pristine beaches and the northern part with its dewy mountains in the highland. Historically, the northern part, especially the highland area is home to various highland ethnic groups. From 1970 to 1990, the highland area in northern Thailand was famous for trekking tours to visit the highland ethnic group to experience their authentic lives (Toyota, 1996). The various highland ethnic groups by the majority of the population are the Karen, Hmong, Akha, Lahu, and Lisu. The Karen is, carried by the tourists, as the highland ethnic group that shares their way of life openly with them, and on this occasion, we will share it with you.

( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

Who are the Karen?

The Karen highland ethnic group can be found both in Myanmar and Thailand, as these two regions share a border. They are divided into different sub-groups, speak their own both spoken and written languages and by appearance, they have particular colorful attires that differ them from other highland ethnic groups. Promoting a way of life through the tourism industry, the Karen are those who can be found on the city’s tourist agencies' pamphlets as the “living with the Elephant” or “Nature Trekking” experience. For their wisdom and practice of living in harmony with nature, they are called as “The Guardian of the forests”.



 ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

Karen Women

According to a Karen scholar, Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakorn, The Karen practices the matrilineal family kinship, and the land is owned by the women. The life of the Karen people starts with paddy, as in traditional land use cultivation in agriculture practices. Since this practice is a part of the Karen identity, The Karen women have important roles in the whole process of cultivation. The Karen women are accepted and honored by the community as observant and good collectors and preservers of seed cultivars. They also have concise knowledge of different types of soils suitable for certain types of plants, making them the expert of cultivators (Santasombat, 2003). 

Other than their expertise in cultivation, Karen women are the ones making the traditional attires. They weave the cloths and embroider the pattern by hand. Every woman in the community is taught how to weave, this tradition is passed onto generations. The different styles and colors also represent different meanings. Weaving creativity and wisdom, they are trusted to make the clothes for their family and relatives.

Karen Village: Women's participation in Tourism activities

Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s heart of tourism, organizing various festivals distinctly from other regions of the kingdom. The end of the year is the winter season in the northern region where, in highland, the temperature cools down to 5 degrees, and at the peak, the grass is ice frosted. Many ethnic tourism sites are located in the highlands, this time of the year is the busiest time for ethnic villages that are involved in the tourism industry. One of them is a Karen village namely Mae Klang Luang, located on the slopes of Doi Inthanon, the highest peak of Thailand at 2,570m.


Most of the people in charge of tourism activities in the village are women. This is because the men are working outside of the village or in the city to support the family. The women are running the family business such as homestay and coffee shops, work in weaving shops, and even being tour guides on nature trails, they also work in the rice fields, as it is the main attraction in the village. The men who are not working in the city also support the running of these businesses but the number is lower than the women. For example, in managing the homestays, the women are in charge of preparing food and payment transactions, and the men are in charge of laundry and homestay maintenance.


  ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

Entering the village, tourists will first see the beautiful terrace rice fields and farmers working in the fields that are mostly women, recognized by their colorful attires and patterned skirt. Around the rice fields, homestays and coffee shops are built to accommodate tourists. Coffee is highly produced in the village and crafted by the local people.


The weaving shops are located a bit inside of the village. The women usually sit in front of the shops and can be seen weaving a cloth. Not only the shop is open for the tourists, but also the local themselves, as weaving takes a lot of time, the local who is busy with other work usually ask the shop to make for them. The products vary from scarves, shirts, skirts, and bags. All made by hand in colorful colors, made from both natural colors from leaf and tress and as well mixed with colored loom and contemporary patterns which the women learn from the internet.


 ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

There is a nature trail where the tourist can walk through the jungle accompanied by a local guide, while the guide shares about how nature helps the life of the local people. Interestingly, most of the local guides are women aged above 30 and already married (recognized by the attire that they wear). Walking through the jungle is not easy and the trails quite take a long time, seemed that this profession, usually is occupied by the men, however, a woman guide expressed that:

“Being a guide is not that heavy and the work is flexible, it can support the other work. I also work as a farmer. While waiting for the tourist, I can also continue my embroidery work, and the tourist may as well learn with me. Tourism helps us, and so we help tourism”.


 ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

If it is a lucky day, the tourists may see gibbons hanging and jumping from one tree to another. There is also a big waterfall which the locals said the sound of the water gives the village a therapy, knowing that nature still smiles.


 ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)

In a community where matrilineal kinship is practiced and women are honored for their knowledge, they do not stop just where they are, rather both women and men support each other and expand their knowledge based on their wisdom. Even with the family member working outside the city, they participate to run a lively environment in their village, preserving their cultures interwoven with the modernity that is tourism.

From the case of the women’s participation in Mae Klang Luang village, indeed they have important roles not only in the running of the tourism activities, but also it shows that the women are given the chance to introduce their culture and to be open with the tourists, a sign that tourism supports self-sufficiency to the community that is empowerment.


  ( Source Photo : Author's Personal Documentation)


Mika, Toyota. (1996). The effects of tourism development on an Akha community: A Chiang Rai village case study. In Michael J.G. Parnwell (Ed), Uneven Development in Thailand (pp. 226 – 240). Aldeshot.

Santasombat, Yos. (2003). Biodiversity, Local Knowledge, and Sustainable Development. Chiang Mai: RCSD.

Talty, Alexandra. (2019). Bangkok Is The Most Visited City In The World...Again. Retrieved from

 Dr. Prasert Trakansuphakon:


ditulis oleh (Matahari Irandiputri).

Artikel ini dipublikasikan pada laman | 25 Mei 2022