The Akha people - History and Culture
Table of Contents
The Akha people in Thailand
Origins of the Akha people
The Akha hill tribe originated in Yunnan in Southern China. Yunnan still has the highest Akha population. Over several centuries many Akha have been migrating southward from their original home. In the middle of the 19th century, significant numbers were moving into Shan State in Burma. Others made their way into Laos. Most of the Akha in Thailand came from Burma. The first Akha hill tribe village in Thailand was probably established in 1903 in the Phaya Phrai area on the Burmese border. Phaya Phrai is in Mae Fah Luang District, Chiang Rai.
Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Fashion Textile Tours made this video for us:
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 the North Thailand. In Laos they live in the border areas of China and Thailand. In Vietnam they are a very small minority living in the northwest border area.
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 the city of Chiang Rai. There are also many Akha hill tribe villages are also in the area of 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 have never moved south of the Mae Kok River.
Akha hill tribe subgroups and language
In Thailand, there are three subgroups of Akha hill tribe: Akha Loi Mi, Akha Phami and Akha U Lo. The Loi Mi are easily recognisable by the distinctive metal plate on the back of the woman’s headdress. 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 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 Lomi 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 oral literature of the Akha people, 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 which extends beyond simple religious practise and infuses every aspect of their existence. The Akha Way emphasises rituals in everyday life and stresses strong family ties. Every Akha male can recount his genealogy back over fifty generations to the first Akha.
Akha Traditional life
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. Especially in remote areas in Mae Fah Luang district in Chiang Rai province you will still find original Akha houses. They are harder and harder to find though.
The Akha subsist through an often destructive form of slash-and-burn agriculture. It resulted in the elimination of old-growth forest, native animal species and serious soil runoff problems. The Thai government has made considerable efforts to ban slash-and-burn practices as much as possible.
They are expert farmers who focus on mountain rice, corn, and soybeans, planted in seasonal shifts. The Akha are also very efficient hunters, though their prey sometimes includes endangered species. Some Akha grew opium for income in the past.
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 the beginning of 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 touroperator Hayes and Jarvis contacted us. On their request we organised an Akha cooking demonstration in the village Ban Apha for the magazine Food & Travel. Journalist Philip Sweeney and photographer Gary Latham traveled to the village. Our guide Narong was responsible to make this a great success in cooperation with Armue and his wife. The magazine never credited Green Trails for this and the touroperator took no responsibility. The pictures Gary took are great though.You can find more on his website.
We organise this cooking demonstration on request and it is really worth it.
Visits to Akha villages in Green Trails tours
The following Green Trails tours feature visits to Akha villages: