|Although the author's interactions with the mountainous Akha people do not extend as far back others -- such as the Hmong in Laos in the sixties and the Karen on the Thai/Burmese border in the early seventies -- we have gotten to know them a bit in the past ten years or so in The Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar come together. In fact, some 80,000 Akha people live in the northern Thai provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai representing some 20% of the entire Akha population in southwest China, eastern Myanmar, western Laos, and northwestern Vietnam. Most of them fled civil wars in Burma and Laos.
In Thailand, the Akha people are classified as one of the six hill tribes who migrated from China and Tibet over the past few centuries and now inhabit the mountainous, dense forests surrounding The Golden Triangle. Akha is the name these people call themselves. The author is embarrassed to admit that he learned the names of the various hill tribes given them by the Thai people, in all cases a derogatory term. The fact that these ethnic minorities are given derogatory names in Thai speaks volumes regarding their position in society. Few Akha in Thailand are citizens and most are registered as aliens, thereby creating a host of problems for their children and their welfare. They have their own spoken language and, like certain other hill tribes, no written script.
The agrarian Akha people live in huts that can be dismantled and readily moved given their traditional slash and burn agriculture practice. On the other hand, certain, more modern, villages have emerged that include permanent dwellings and coffee drying platforms to process coffee beans like those sold in The Elephant Story.
The entrances to Akha villages have a wooden gate with elaborate carvings on both sides depicting images of men and women. It marks the division between the inside of the village, the domain of man and domesticated animals, and the outside, the realm of evil spirits and wildlife. The gate is thought to serve to keep the evil spirits out of the village. On more than one occasion in the old days, the author has had second thoughts about leaving the comforts of a village in light of the evil spirits lurking in the dense rain forest outside.
We began to interact with Akha children by donating school supplies to Akha orphans from villages that the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation would invite to elephant polo matches. They may have the most exotic dress of the hill tribes with a lot of hand embroidery and intricate headdresses with coins and silver decorations. Akha women define their age or marital status with the style of headdress worn.
We enjoy going to the Mae Sai village on the border with Myanmar where we purchase vintage Akha clothing to first wash and then apply to clothing and craft into pillows for sale in The Elephant Story.
Four years ago, our grandson Story, played elephant polo with us in The Golden Triangle and participated in donating school supplies to Akha students. If his hair looks a bit close cut, he wanted to experience a dollar haircut from the local barber in nearby Chiang Saen, both he and the barber were pleased.
The Akha are the most impoverished of the hill tribes. Moreover, being an ethnic minority with little legal recourse, they have long been subject to rights abuses. Like other hill tribes, they traditionally grew opium poppy though that has ebbed with pressure from the Thai government. Nonetheless, processed heroin and methamphetamine are readily available from Myanmar. As a result, the Akha have the highest rates of addiction and are susceptible to HIV and AIDS. Our next blog will focus on one lady's efforts to improve the education of Akha children.