In northern Laos the Akha hill tribe women dress in faded shades of black cloth.
Old coins add glinting highlights to accentuate their faces.
These two young women exuded a rather regal presence. Their sublime, innocent eyes captured me.
Below is a fine art rendition of the girl on the left. I simplified the conflicting lines of her background by replacing it in Photoshop using a combination of new layers blended together–a cracked concrete wall off-centered to the right for dynamic balance, some coffee-stained paper and a faint diagonal pattern to lead the eye back to the beautiful girl.
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 where I encountered them. 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 Akha men clutch shiny new mobile phones. Fake leather jackets imported from nearby China are the rage. The guys want to look hip.
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 (an alcoholic spirit distilled from fermented rice) seems to keep the men happy enough I discovered while having a meal with the village chief. 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 tempted my taste buds. I learned after downing a big helping that I had swallowed fresh pig blood curry. All the while the village leader kept graciously filling my cup with lao-lao. Getting a bit tipsy at least minimized the trauma of having indulged in their pig blood culinary delight.
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 virtually no sex crimes in Akha society.
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 feels 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 amorous rendezvous for the parents during the night. No problem. They meet somewhere in the middle in the dark. Note, however, that the house spirits become extremely disturbed when the proper conjugal locale has been altered. So the next morning those spirits must be appeased with the sacrifice of a chicken, which is later served as a family meal.
The Akha eat lots of chicken.
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 while the parents must leave the village for a few months until they have cleansed themselves of impurity.
There is no written Akha language.
Today only Lao is taught to Akha kids in Laotian schools and one day soon the world will say goodbye to their culture. I don’t pass judgment and I’m deeply appreciative to have experienced their world while it still exists.
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