A young woman with a peculiar headdress enters the smoky dark room. She brings in a big tray covered with breakfast dishes: fried morning glory, fried noodles, a bamboo woven basket filled with steamy sticky rice, some chicken, and the homebrewed whiskey! A fire burns next to me in a small clay pot on the dirt floor, and despite the smoke that stings my eyes, I stay close to the welcomed heat source. Reluctantly, I move my little stool closer to the very low table on which the tray is set, joining our guide Sivangxai, the Ban Peryenxangkao village chief and his nephews. Here, in the ethnically diverse Northern Laos, Akha tribes live according to their ancient traditions far from modern civilisation.
We have just spent a long and cold night at almost 2000 metres in the six-metre-wide bed that we shared with the village chief, our guide Sivangxai, and the other male family members. This is an honour. As foreign women, we are considered as honorary men in the Akha village. The Akha way or Akhazan code is transmitted orally from one generation to the next and ensures that traditions are passed on. According to the Akha customs and beliefs, the world is divided into two opposite but complimentary male and female halves: males and females have their separate eating and sleeping quarters as each house has a masculine and feminine side. Daily tasks are clearly assigned. Women fetch water, work the fields, treat the cotton to make clothes, weave, dye linen, maintain the gardens, cook, keep the house tidy, feed the animals, sell crops at the market, take care of the children, etc. Men hunt, maintain trails, work on the house when it needs repairs and smoke opium while welcoming visitors.
In this typical settlement of forty families, tucked in the remote mountains of Northern Laos near the Chinese border, it seems that time has stood still. Chickens roam around the bamboo walls of the thatched roofed houses with their chicks. Roosters crow. Dogs guard the fenced compounds with their many puppies. Pigs and piglets lay down in the middle of all this. A few cows masticate some grass. A rare buffalo used to plough the land and drag logs from the forest walks by. No electricity poles are in sight, and just a solar panel on a couple of huts remind us we are in the 21st century.
Girls are walking out of the village, carrying wooden baskets on their backs with hollow bamboos that they will fill up with water soon. Some older women are completely dressed in their traditional clothes, including their headdress that can weigh up to five kilograms, as they always are (including in bed!). They are carrying sickles to go work the fields: rice, corn and poppies for opium. Opium used to be the main cash crop in the Golden Triangle and is now sort of tolerated for the Akha’s own consumption. A group of boys is setting off with riffles to go hunting in the patches of forest left between the fields as the Akha slash and burn trees to grow their crops. The pressure put on the environment forces the Akha tribes to move their entire village every generation, with the ancestors’ guidance and permission.
As they are all leaving the village, they are passing by the wood-carved spirit gate that separates the domain of men from the world of wildlife, and protects the village from malevolent spirits. The animist Akha believe that all things on earth have souls and worship their ancestors. Sivangxai explains that the Akha venerate their ancestors so much, that even if they hardly write, most of them are able to recite their ancestors’ names for the past 60 generations! Ancestor spirits guide humans and provide blessings such as health, harvests and fertility. A village has a chief or shaman who can communicate with the spirit world. The arrival of an evil spirit is signalled by unlucky events that often trigger a move: a new family in the village, a dog climbing on the roof of a house, a tree falling down near the sacred gate, or twins being born.
We are walking towards the school where a dozen boys and girls sharing a few benches are focused on basic maths on the black board. The Akha do not value education and hardly send their children to school. Kids only have extremely basic knowledge, and even speaking the national language is a challenge. As a consequence, they are often discriminated against when they leave their village. With little opportunities, they become vulnerable in the outside world…
Beyond the adventure of exploring dirt roads and single tracks by motorbike in the Golden Triangle, crossing lakes with the motorbike on a narrow canoe, and trekking in the beautiful mountains of Northern Laos to reach some Akha villages, visiting and meeting the Akha is an unforgettable experience and raises many questions. How is it possible to preserve an ethnic heritage, with its language, clothing, religion and rituals in a world where economic development, modernization and globalization are rampant? How is it possible to keep one’s ethnic identity when governments tend to standardize their populations? Should one’s believes be preserved at all costs, or should education prevail? And how can education prevail while respecting ancient believes and not disrupting ways of living?
Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau (text & photographs)
- The Akha tribe are an ethnic minority living in the mountains of Northern Laos, Western Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Northern Vietnam, and Southern China where this hill tribe group originally migrated from.
- The Akha people are one of the smallest, poorest and least developed hill tribe groups in Southeast Asia, but they are also among of the best known to foreigners, as Akha women are famous for their beautiful, elaborate and distinctive traditional costumes and headdresses.
- Having a guide is a must to hike in Northern Laos and visit some Akha tribes, as the language and cultural barriers are so dramatic. If you want to live this adventure, get in touch with Amazing Lao Travel in Phongsaly.
- If you are visiting the Akha villages and want to bring gifts, take pencils and notebooks.
- If meeting Akha tribes in Northern Laos is respectful of their traditions and contributes to complementing their incomes, many Thai Akha villages have become ethnic zoos.
- As the Akha fear the powerful spirit of water, their hygiene is pretty low. Don’t expect toilets nor showers during your stay.
- To learn more about the Akha and other ethnic groups of Laos, visit the excellent TAEC (Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre) museum in Luang Prabang.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!