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Akha Hill Tribe Headdresses and Bamboo Love Shacks

Author: Glen Allison

Akha hill tribe women in northern Laos dress in faded shades of black cloth. Color exists only in their decorative accouterments. Old coins add a bit of glinting highlight to their costumes.

Akha Hill Tribe

The Akha are a proud people. It's thought they may have originated in Mongolia about 1500 years ago. Today most Akha hill tribes live in southern China or in northern Thailand or in two provinces of nearby northern Laos. Today their culture is on decline. Many Akha women don't wear their traditional dress everyday and virtually no Akha men don traditional attire. Influence from the West arrived and males were the first to acquiesce. Today many Akha men clutch mobile phones. Fake leather jackets imported from nearby China are now the rage for Akha men. Perhaps they want to look hip.

Like many travelers to northern Laos, I trekked up a steep mountain to visit one of the more remote Akha villages. As guest of honor I was invited to sleep in the village chief's hut. As with many hill tribes in Laos, UNICEF had helped these villagers install a water pipe from the nearest small river, which provided my trekking team with what turned out to be a bone-chilling, very public bath about thirty minutes before nightfall. Our seven-hour trek to the mountaintop had been steep, strenuous and sweaty. Climbing mountains at midday in these locales can be hot and exhausting. The climate in Laos is generally moderate but in the mountains the winter nights resemble those of the North Pole. It's funny how icy water can be excruciatingly painful and refreshing at the same time. The Akha are modest, so each member of our party only stripped down to underwear for the goose-bump-inducing, fully-exposed frigid shower in the middle of the village that evening. Surely it was the shortest bath of my life. Shivering in wet underwear under the curious eyes of several Akha women wasn't pleasant. But our bodies warmed up soon thereafter with ample samples of lao-lao--the home brewed, highly spirited local alcoholic concoction distilled from rice--that flowed freely later that night.

In recent years the socialist Lao government has virtually eliminated the production of opium, which in the past had become the staple method of sustenance for many in the Akha economic landscape. Today they plant corn and, of course, rice. I didn't see any drug addicts. These days lao-lao seems to keep the men happy enough I discovered while having a meal with the village leader. It was a feast of numerous Akha delicacies that spiced up generous helpings of sticky rice. One bowl was filled with a tasty red sauce that would tempt just about anyone's taste buds. I learned after downing a big helping that I had swallowed fresh pig blood curry. The village leader kept graciously filling our cups with lao-lao. Getting a bit tipsy at least minimized the trauma of having indulged in their pig blood culinary delight.

Evenings in Akha villages aren't quiet. Roosters crowed. Pigs grunted. Dogs barked and the night was filled with the occasional whimper of a baby. But babies didn't seem to cry very much there; maybe because they weren't spoiled. The evening sky was crystal clear at the top of that mountain. I lifted my eyes. Galaxies beyond infinity were visible. Every square centimeter of the universe seemed to be inundated with stars.

Akha hill tribes have developed interesting cultural mores. At age sixteen Akha lads are encouraged by their elders to build bamboo "love shacks" at the village periphery where they can freely court young ladies of mutual interest. It's a sign of great fortune if the young girl gets pregnant prior to marriage, which always ensues shortly thereafter. Not surprisingly, there are no sex crimes in Akha societies. After marriage, however, men and women don't sleep in the same room together. But they do make conjugal visits to the other side of the partition whenever either has the whim. After babies finish their suckling, the boys sleep with their father and the girls with their mother. Naturally, this could make for awkward conjugal rendezvous in the middle of the night. No problem. The parents meet somewhere in the middle in the dark. Note, however, that the house spirits become extremely disturbed when the proper locale has been altered so the next morning those spirits are appeased with the sacrifice of a chicken, which is later served as a family meal. The Akha eat lots of chicken.

Akha Hill Tribe

Akha Hill Tribe

Akha women possess a rather regal presence yet most of them can't read or write. Their sublime, innocent eyes captured every aspect of me.

Wikipedia describes their culture: "The Akha put a particularly heavy emphasis on genealogy--they are taught their family history at a very early age and their culture has a strong focus on honoring ancestors and their parents, though they dispute that this represents a form of ancestor worship. A better description of the Akha religion would be animism. They believe in a world filled with spirits (both good and bad) that have a definite physical impact on their everyday lives. They believe in a natural cycle of balance that, if disrupted, can result in illness and hardship or even death."

Why is it that many of us in the West have yet to discover such things?

I celebrate the Akha.

But all has not been rosy in their past. They consider having twins or triplets as an extreme imbalance that will beget much ill fortune. Until recently the village shaman and participating elders would terminate those children's lives within twenty-four hours of birth. Such practice is now illegal and can bring lengthy prison sentences. However, these offspring are not tolerated in the village even today and NGOs from foreign countries quickly help find them foster homes. The parents must leave the village for a few months until they have cleansed themselves of impurity.

There is no written Akha language. Only Lao is taught to young Akha kids in Laotian schools these days and one day soon the world will say goodbye to their culture.

I try not to pass judgment and I'm so appreciative I experienced their world while it still exists.

Copyright Glen Allison ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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About the Author

Visual artist Glen Allison is a vagabond travel photographer and writer embarked on a nonstop, ten-year marathon odyssey to photograph extraordinary destinations. Browse his website for stock photo licenses, fine art prints and Photoshop actions.

See Glen's stunning fine art imagery from this trip in his original blog post, "Akha Hill Tribes."

Mae Chan, which is about 29 kilometers to the north of Chiang Rai, serves as a trading post where the Akha and Yao hill people sell their goods and buy manufactured items. Silver and other tribal handicrafts are available at local shops.

An Akha Wedding and a Visit to Mae Chan Market