The Akha hill tribe people in Laos
The Akha people of Laos are an indigenous hill tribe who live mainly in the mountains of the province Phongsaly. The ethnical group of the Akha people originally settled in the Kuaichao and Yunan province of China, from there they moved also to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The population of the Akha in southwest China, eastern Myanmar, western Laos, northwestern Vietnam and northern Thailand is estimated about roughly 400,000 people. In all these countries the Akha people are an ethnic minority.
The best way to visit the Akha hill tribe people of Laos is doing a several days trek to the villages in the mountains. One possibility is to start the trek in Phongsaly. A guide is mandatory for the trek, because the Akha people don't speak English, and the accommodation or the food could be a huge problem without guide. Guided tours are offered in Phongsaly from the tourist office or a small local tour operator. There are not many tourists in Phongsaly, but it isn't a problem to find a guide, or if needed, other foreigners to join the guided trek.
The other possibility is to go by bus to Boun Tai and start a 3- or 4-days trek from there to Akha Loma, Akha Mouchi (Mochi) and Akha Eupa (Eurpa) people. Boun Tai is a small town on the way from Oudomxay to Phongsaly. The trek from Boun Tai is lesser known than the treks around Phongsaly and it starts by a songthaew to reach the first Akha Mouchi village. From there a hiking trail, sometimes pretty steep, leads from village to village and ends at the main road, where it is possible to catch a bus either back to Phongsaly or to Oudomxay.
I visited the Akha villages beginning of January, a good time, because the Akha people are celebrating New Year. The Akha religion is characterized as animism with an ancestor cult. The date of New Year varies from village to village, and usually lasts around 4 days. The shaman of a village decides if and when the New Year ceremony takes place. The first night we spent in the house of the shaman and headman of a small Akha Loma village. It was the second day of the New Year ceremony, and the shaman had a lot of guests in his house who brought presents and sacrifices to him. The Akha people are not used to meet foreigners, and the women and children are very shy. Only the women and girls wear traditional clothes, the boys and men wear western style clothes. The Akha society is patriarchal, the women don't have many rights, they have to keep quiet, they have to work, to cook and to do the massaging for the men.
Spending an evening in a house of a shaman at New Year is not only a wonderful and unique experience - it is also extremely unhealthy. At least if drinking many many Lao Lao in a short time is regarded as unhealthy. I have to admit, at that evening I was drunk and at night I slept like a baby. For a male foreigner there is no excuse for not drinking, especially if you accepted the first Lao Lao and you liked it. Needless to say, Lao Lao is very strong schnapps, and it tastes delicious. The Akha men insist that you always drink two glasses with them, because it's tradition and only one glass brings bad luck. Anyway, on that evening I drank a lot with the shaman and his guests. Which was good by the way, because it turned out the Akha women prepared for the delicious dinner not only goat and chicken - but also two kind of dog dishes! Luckily I had already many Lao Lao to be brave enough to try the dog.
Next day we hiked to another Akha Loma village. We couldn't use the regular path because of a heavy rain in the morning and a landslide, which blocked the trail. Instead we had to walk on a hidden path which followed the river bed, a detour, but the advantage was, no more steep trails. We had to cross the river six or seven times, and of course there were no bridges. I was clearly the first foreigner whoever went on this path, and I felt like a warrior on the Ho Chí Minh trail, it was humid, exhausting but pure adventure! Along the way we met a group of Akha children who managed to kill a snake. The guide bought the snake for one Dollar, a great addition for our next dinner.
The third day was a relaxing day in the Akha Loma village. It was still New Year, and most of the children were playing around the tall four-posted swing, which is built annually only for the New Year ceremony. Another tradition is to play the cymbals, which hang next to the door of each wooden Akha house. That day we visited the school, many Akha families and also a wedding preparation. In every house the people offered us plenty of food. And finally, after I already tried dog and snake, I was heroic enough to try a smoked field rat. Very delicious I have to say, it tastes like chicken, but it looks absolutely disgusting and horrible! And guess what I had to drink with the Akha men all day? I needed a nap at around five in the afternoon just to relax for the traditional dance in the evening.
Spending four days in Akha villages was a wonderful and awesome experience. I didn't get too many photos, because the women are very shy. The Akha people live a simple but happy life in traditional wooden houses, without running water, without electricity and no hospitals or doctors around. On the other hand, times are changing. Some of the villages can now be reached via a small dirt road, and every once in a while you can see motor cycles along the way. The Akha men already stopped wearing traditional clothes and it is only a matter of time that the Akha women will do the same. Some of the houses already have a small solar panel on the roof, enough electricity to run a simple light bulb for a couple of hours at night. On the trek between the Akha villages you can see coffee plantations grown and run by Chinese companies. However, the ethnic minority group of the Akha people has still been subject to rights abuses in Laos. Let's hope the changes will improve the living conditions of the Akha people, instead of destroying their traditions.