The Akha people - History and Culture
Table of Contents
The Akha people in Thailand
Origins of the Akha people
The Akha (อาข่า) hill tribe originally come from Yunnan, which still has the highest Akha population. Over several centuries many Akha people have been migrating to the south. In the middle of the 19th century, significant numbers moved into Shan State in Burma. Others made their way into Laos. However, most of the Akha people, who are now in Thailand, came from Burma. They established the first Akha hill tribe village in Thailand in 1903 in the Phaya Phrai area on the Thai-Burmese border.
Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Fashion Textile Tours made this video for us in the Akha village Baan Apha in 2016:
Where do the Akha people live?
The Akha hill tribe people live in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. In China, they mostly live in Yunnan province. In Myanmar, you will find Akha villages in Shan State. They live in North Thailand, primarily in Chiang Rai province. In Laos, they live in the border areas of China and Thailand. In Vietnam, they are a tiny minority living in the northwest border area.
As said, Chiang Rai province is home to most Akha villages in Thailand. An area with a large percentage of Akha hill tribe people is Mae Salong (now known as Santikhiri), northwest of Chiang Rai. Many Akha hill tribe villages are also near Ban Therd Thai (formerly known as Ban Hin Taek), a former residence and base of the so-called “Opium King,” Khun Sa. There are some Akha villages in Viang Pa Pao and Chiang Dao districts, but the majority of the Akha people live north of the Mae Kok River.
Akha hill tribe subgroups
There are three subgroups of the Akha hill tribe in Thailand: Akha Loi Mi, Akha Phami, and Akha U Lo. The Loi Mi are easily recognizable by the distinctive metal plate on the woman’s headdress’s back. The U Lo women wear a conical headdress. From our observation: there seem to be more Akha Loi Mi and U Lo than Akha Phami. The three subgroups speak the same language.
The Akha language
The Akha hill tribe speak a language in the Lolo/Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman language group. The Akha have no traditional written language. There are a variety of schemes for writing Akha. These have been developed by missionaries or linguists who use Roman, Thai or Burmese characters. Apparently literacy in Akha is still virtually non-existent. We have listed a number of expressions and words that you can use if you visit an Akha village.
How are you?
What is your name?
Gulung guma deh
Counting in Akha Language
An Akha Loimi woman from Ban Apha, Chiang Rai province, tells us how to count from 1 to 10 in Akha language. Now you can practice yourself.
Akha Religion, Culture, and lifestyle
Though many Akha, especially younger people, are Christian, Akha Zang (“The Akha Way”), a total lifestyle prescribed in the Akha people’s oral literature, still runs deep in the consciousness of older generations. The Akha Way combines animism, ancestor worship, and their deep relationship with the land.
For an Akha, the Akha Way is a way of life that extends beyond simple religious practice and infuses every aspect of their existence. The Akha Way emphasizes rituals in everyday life and stresses strong family ties. Every Akha male can recount his genealogy back over fifty generations to the first Akha.
Traditional Akha houses
The Akha hill tribe people generally live in bamboo houses raised on low wooden stilts in hilly areas. These huts are divided by gender. One side is for the women. The other side, occupied by the men, is used as a more public area. You will still find original Akha houses, especially in remote villages in Mae Fah Luang district in Chiang Rai province. They are harder and harder to find, though.
Agriculture, opium and the Royal Project
The Akha practised an often destructive form of slash-and-burn agriculture. It resulted in the cutting of old-growth forests, the extinction of native animal species, and caused severe soil erosion. The Thai government made considerable efforts to ban these slash-and-burn practices.
They are expert farmers who focus on mountain rice, corn, and soybeans, planted in seasonal shifts. The Akha are also skilled hunters, though their prey sometimes includes endangered species. In the past the Akha cultivated opium as a cash crop. The Royal project has succeeded in offering substitute cash crops such as coffee to move the Akha away from opium cultivation. The Doi Tung project is a good example of this.
Akha traditional dress and textile tours
These pictures were made for Green Trails by Donna Bramhall from Haute Culture Textile Tours. in 2017 and 2018 we successfully organised several textile tours for Haute Culture Textile Tours to Ban Apha, the Akha village north of Chiang Rai. If you are interested, please contact us.
Important Akha Festivals
The most famous festival of the Akha is the swing festival. This festival takes place at the peak of the rainy season, which is the end of August or September. If you are in North Thailand around that time, it is worth considering a visit.
There are several other tribal festivals in which the Akha participate. In November, a tribal festival usually takes place at Hua Mae Kham, Mae Fah Luang district. In early December last year, I visited a tribal festival in Mae Sai in which Akha Phami, Palaung (Dara-ang), Tai Ya, Tai Lue, and other tribes took part. We will keep you updated.
Akha Hill Tribe Cooking Demonstration
In March 2019, the British tour operator Hayes and Jarvis contacted us. We organized an Akha cooking demonstration in the village Ban Apha for the magazine Food & Travel at their request. Journalist Philip Sweeney and photographer Gary Latham traveled to the village. Our guide Narong was responsible for making this a great success in cooperation with Armue and his wife. The magazine never credited Green Trails for this, and the tour operator took no responsibility. The pictures Gary took are great, though. You can find more on his website.
We organize this cooking demonstration on request, and it is really a great thing to do.
My own experience with the Akha people
I spent my first night in an Akha village in the Viang Pa Pao district in 1989. After that I stayed many nights in an Akha village near Chiang Rai during a four day/three day trek with groups of Baobab Travel from the Netherlands. I was the tourleader of these groups. Below photo was taken in that village.
The Akha villages that feature in our tours are Akha villages in Chiang Dao district and the village Baan Apha, Chiang Rai province. We organized textile tours to this village and do our Akha Cooking Course in this village.
Visits to Akha villages in Green Trails tours
The following Green Trails tours feature visits to Akha villages: