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An Akha hill-tribe village in Thailand - facts and photos
The Akha hill tribe
A few years ago, while living in North Thailand, I visited a village belonging to the Akha hill tribe. The Akha people are a distinct ethnic group who live in small villages in mountainous regions in China (their place of origin) Burma (Myanmar) Laos and north Thailand. I wanted to get a feel of the place and people and take some photos
I knew how to get there as I was quite familiar with the area in general. This village is on a trekking route, so my lone arrival didn't cause a stir apart from mild surprise to see a foreigner arrive alone on foot, rather than with half a dozen others, led by a Thai trekking guide.
The village had a small shop run by a Chinese couple who, for a small charge, take in waifs and strays like me and provide a floor to sleep on, some blankets and a hot meal (It gets real cold in the mountains at night).
Next day I explored the village and took some photos but I couldn't get any decent shots of the Akha people. Despite my efforts to be discreet and unobtrusive, I couldn't get natural looking shots. A short time later a group of trekkers arrived in the village. They took photos of anything that moved, many without asking or any attempt at discretion. I could see then why the Akha weren't so relaxed with me - just another foreigner taking pictures.
I persevered and took what I could and a couple of days later left to return to the northern city of Chiangmai to develop my pictures (yes - it was in pre-digital days).
With my bunch of mediocre prints and new film for my camera, I returned to the village and promptly handed out the photos to the villagers who appeared in the pictures.
It caused a mini sensation. They were delighted and amazed. Every day, tourists had been passing through on treks, taking pictures that would never be seen by any of the villagers. No one had ever come back to show the pictures, let alone hand them out. Suddenly, I was flavour of the month and I was welcome in just about every house. They often had their photo hanging up somewhere in pride of place.
Although they have their own language, they are all (or mostly) fluent in Thai too. As a reasonably ok Thai speaker myself, I could enjoy spending time with them and had some interesting and sometimes amusing conversations such as:
Where are you from?
I'm from Britain
How long does it take to go there?
It's a 15 hours flight, more or less
Hmmm - How long by bus?
A plane journey didn't mean much, as it gave no feeling of the distance involved, whereas a bus journey... now that was something they could relate to. It's just a pity that I had no idea how to answer it.
The Akha village described in the article is located in the Mae Taeng district of Thailand, north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Facts about the Akha
According to a UNESCO report, there are at least two distinct sub groups of the Akha people. The inhabitants of this particular village belong to the Lo Me Akha. Among the Akha in general, according to the same UNESCO report, opium poppy is a traditional crop only of this sub group, which explains opium being freely available and discreetly offered for sale to any trekker or visitors who cared to partake. Many of the men in the village were regular opium users and, it being a traditional part of their lifestyle, opium poppy cultivation for their own use was always tolerated, despite opium being highly illegal under Thai law. I don't know if the authorities are quite so tolerant these days.
Other crops cultivated include, maize and dry field rice. Selling handicrafts to trekkers is becoming an increasingly important source of revenue given the uncertainties of farming in mountainous regions and the rapid growth of Thailand's tourist industry. Akha men often leave the village to provide labour for lowland Thai farmers and Akha women can often be seen in towns and cities selling handicrafts, wherever tourists gather. The metal headdress with various hanging coins worn by women is the most distinctive feature of their traditional attire and makes them easier to identify than several of the other hilltribes. Akha men dress pretty much the same as rural Thais.