Into TGL: A Week in an Akha Village

January 27, 2017

Anya Lawrence

Having spent the night in Chiang Rai, I woke up early the next morning to wind my way up through the mountains of Northern Thailand to find an Akha village. And there, nestled between tall trees and cool rivers, I found the simple life.

The Akha tribe is one of the minority groups of people in Thailand. I’d spent some time with other groups – the Hmong and Karen – but this was the first time I’d spent any significant time with the Akha People. They are rich in culture, history, knowledge and tradition but being an ethnic minority who often live in remote villages, many don’t have documentation proving they were born in Thailand. There are numerous consequences of this but some of the most tangible is that access public health care, education and even permission to work is difficult.

There is another emerging challenge for the Akha people. Amongst the younger generations, traditional ways of life are being lost as more and more seek to carve out a life for themselves in the city. You can also see other evidence of the convergence of modern life with Akha life – the village I stayed in was strewn with plastics and rubbish. Traditionally, Akha people have discarded anything they created themselves because it is made from nature, such as carved bamboo cups. No such luck with plastics.

I spent my first day in the village at the school there. Compared to the amount of children who live in the village, there’s relatively few children enrolled at the school– again, because parents prefer to send their kids to schools in the city. The school has no English teacher but the children do go through English work books. I sat with some of the children for a few hours, helping them to label their drawings with English words and going through English exercises. Hopefully in the future there can be more permanent opportunities for the kids to work on their English.

At one of the desks in the classroom, a sweet, thirteen year old girl attached herself to me. She matched up names of animals with their drawings and flashed me a shy, gap-toothed smile after I had marked it right, and then hurried onto the next exercise. After several attempts of asking her “khun chûue à-rai?” what is your name, and getting no verbal response (my pronunciation of Thai is bad but not THAT bad) her friend told me that she doesn’t speak. Ever. I was curious but I couldn’t find out anything else about her. Maybe next time.

While at the village, we slept in a simple room with mattresses on the floor. We had two western-style toilets (a luxury!), but one had to be flushed using buckets of water. There was no hot water, but there were taps set high in the bathroom wall which served as showers. I wasn’t brave enough to wash my hair under the freezing cold water because I am a pathetic privileged westerner, but I did take a couple of bird baths and would have attempted some hair washing if I had been there for longer than the week.

We slept here every night apart from one when we went to a homestay which was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the Akha way of life. Here, we hand roasted coffee beans, picked green tea and carved our own bamboo cups, then spent the evening sitting by the fire, listening to the locals sing songs and play guitar. One benefit of homestays like this is that they help the younger generation of Akha people to stay connected to traditional ways of life while providing them with a source of income.

The rest of the week was spent hiking through the jungle, chasing chickens around the yard and eating noodles by the fire. The water was cold, the mosquitos were bite-y, but with no internet the world outside the village melted away. It was bliss.

Finally, the last night arrived. To thank our hosts and the village for having us, we cooked food from our own countries. I made rice pudding and the German girls I was with made a kind of pizza dough topped with onions and sour cream. We presented these to the village elders who in turn, took us through a farewell ceremony. They each gave us some tea and some happy water (super strong spirits) to drink, some egg, rice and spices to eat, and then they each tied a bracelet around our wrists. It felt like an extremely special moment. We then had an evening of music, dancing and a splash or two more of happy water! The elders took us through Akha dance steps, and we in turn showed them the waltz (to be clear, I had to be taught this by the German girls, I can’t actually dance). And then, all too soon, it was over.

After we had packed up the next day, we went to go and thank the wonderful woman who had cooked for us and looked after us throughout the week. She told us “I am your Akha mum! Come back!” Maybe because I was still feeling the effects of the happy water, but mostly because I’m a total sap, that made me tear up. Just a little.

Anya Lawrence

Anya has been travelling since July 2016, and is currently working on a podcast telling stories from across the world


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