Watch our short documentary film Spirits in the Akha Forest on YouTube.
The Akha are the most spiritual people I have ever come across. In some ways that is remarkable because of the pressures they face to adapt and conform to the modern world. The spiritual leader pictured on the left had a profound effect on me. When I arrived in his village I asked my guide to request of the villagers that we be taken to see their leader. A few minutes later as we approached his house, he was sitting on a small stool on the porch outside. He appeared very content and almost in a trance state. He signaled us to join him. What followed was a thirty-minute conversation between the two of us conducted entirely in sign language. I spoke none of his languages, nor he mine. Yet somehow we understood each other for the whole 30 minutes before he eventually called on my guide to translate a verbal conversation. (I use the term "spiritual leader" since it's the most accurate term I know of in English; other terms you may be familiar with are chief, elder, medicine man, witch doctor, shaman and priest — I don't believe that any of these other terms reflect the role of the spiritual leader in Akha and similar cultures.)
The visitor to an Akha village could easily be fooled as to the depth and spiritual significance of their daily life. In the August to September time frame, children are seen in every village playing on a large swing. This may look no different from the scene you've witnessed hundreds of times in your local park, or even in your own back yard. Yet this is the annual swing ceremony. Not simply a child's recreational pastime, it is a ritual in which thanks are given to the spirits of dead ancestors. So important is this ritual that the village swing is built anew each year just for the occasion. Indeed, dead ancestors, and their worship, form a key part of Akha spiritual life. It is believed that their spirits can influence both the daily life and longer-term fortunes of the living. For this reason most Akha to this day learn by heart the name of their every male ancestor. Today, that lineage goes back about sixty generations. During the most important ceremonies the list is recited in its entirety. Another reason for knowing this lineage is the role it plays in the incest taboo: if a male and female Akha find a common male ancestor within their last six generations, they are not allowed to marry.
Entering an Akha village you will see a wooden frame looking like it's either waiting for a door to be made, or its previous door has been removed. Be careful about walking through or touching it because this is the "spirit gate". If you look closer you'll see assorted carvings around the frame — some of them looking appealing, others grotesque.This is by design, as the purpose of the gate is to ward off the evil spirits from the village while inviting in the benign ones. Should an evil spirit manage to enter an Akha village, another barrier stands in its way of entering any household. Look up to the roof of the house and you'll see any number of elaborate, ornate wooden carvings. Their purpose is to protect the house and its dwellers — the more carvings the stronger the protection.
To some this may seem like simple superstition — especially in the 21st. Century, but many Akha — particularly the older generation — believe in this spirit world and live their lives according to this belief. An illustration of just how deep and powerful their belief can be is provided by Gordon Young in the final chapter of his book, Tracks of An Intruder. With his Lahu companions, Young had come across an Akha village in which a young girl had been sick for some weeks. Unknown to the villagers, she probably had a ruptured appendix. The timing of their arrival was unfortunate and the girl died shortly afterwards. The Akha villagers believed that evil spirits had entered their village "riding on the back" of Young, and blamed him for her death. Seeking revenge, they planned to kill him. He plotted to save his life by speaking to them in the only terms he knew they would understand: "Akha Chief and all men! Listen carefully to words that will mean the life or death of every one of you! Your intentions are evil, so I call upon my ten thousand guardian spirits to kill you all, every one, even the chickens, pigs and dogs! Command your people to drop their guns immediately or I call the spirits this moment!" The bluff was effective and without it he probably would have been killed. Despite the event he describes taking place during the 1950's, after having visited many Akha villages, I can easily imagine such a scene being repeated today.
The Akha originated in China, where most of them still live today. Over the last few hundred years, though, they have migrated into Burma (Myanmar), the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Thailand and Vietnam. Throughout their migration they have continued their traditions and passed on by word-of-mouth their account of their origin, their customs and their history through many generations. It should come as no surprise that the Akha have achieved this — even without access to a written language. In their book Peoples of The Golden Triangle, Paul and Elaine Lewis characterize them by their "desire for continuity" — continuity of their way of life. This continuity can be seen to a large extent in Akha villages to this day. Despite having had a lot of contact with missionaries over the last hundred years or so, the Akha who are considered Christian or Buddhist are for the most part only nominally so. In reality their belief in and connection to their traditional spirit world pervades their daily life.
The desire for continuity may not be waning, but, slowly, the continuity itself is. One sees in most Akha villages today only the oldest generation in their traditional clothes. While the younger generation don these clothes for special ceremonies such as funerals, you are more ikely to see them in areas that have heavy volumes of tourists — particularly in Thailand. Among the poorest of people in each of the countries where they live, the Akha have recently adapted to tourism by selling both their handicrafts and their services as photo opportunities. "Hill tribe trekking" has become very popular in northern Thailand, where it is easy to join a group for a one- to six-day tour of Akha and other ethnic minority villages.
In particular, the area around the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, the Lao PDR and Burma are bordered together) is filled daily with Akha (and other hill tribe) children posing, singing and dancing to put food on the table. Most tourists don't realize that many of these children are actually orphans from an orphanage established in a nearby Akha village.
In the Lao PDR, the volume of tourism is much lower, so the same kind of scene is not repeated there. In April, 2001 I found myself in an Akha village there which, although it had seen a small trickle of western visitors in the past few years, the villagers had never before seen anyone with black skin. (The village did not have electricity so they had not even seen a black-skinned person on television.) At first they were very unsure of this lady — one child ran to the arms of his mother in genuine fear. Eventually, curiosity won over and as soon as one of the older children had, with trepidation, touched her skin, one by one the others followed, now wanting to touch her hair also. This lady was very accommodating to the Akha's desire to touch her and verify that she posed no threat to them. In the end everyone laughed at their initial hesitance. This encounter could have taken place in northern Thailand twenty or so years earlier, but today it would pass without any focus on the color of the tourist's skin.
Some breaks in their "continuity" are more welcomed than others by the Akha. Access to education, medicine, hygiene and sanitation, although a very recent development for the Akha, is generally seen as a good thing. Not that they are always implemented in the most effective ways: the photograph left showing children washing dishes inside a pig pen is not an uncommon kind of sight. By comparison, one sees less and less the practice of swidden, or "slash-and-burn" agriculture. In former times, a village would be relocated every few years, once the land was no longer able to sustain food requirements. (Paul and Elaine Lewis give a fascinating account of how the Akha consult the spirits for permission to relocate a village in a particular place.) These days more sustainable agricultural techniques are practiced so that a village may remain at the same site for a decade or more.
Changing agricultural practices also mean changes in the kinds of crops grown. Some say that the cultivation of opium poppy by the Akha is on the decline. Of course, it is difficult to get reliable figures about this. One observation made by many, and which I have also seen, is the now quite common recreational use of opium where it once played a role primarily in Akha ritual. Tourism may be partly to blame for this as western "drug tourists" are now visiting the areas where the Akha live in large numbers and taking opium recreationally. Whatever the factors are that have led to it, the high incidence of opium addiction is currently devastating the lives of many Akha families.
As the Akha are exposed to the modern world, the changes they are facing are sometimes beneficial but other times threatening to their survival. Large numbers of them are now leaving their villages in search of prosperity in the cities of the mainstream societies where they live. Typically with little education and often not able to speak the national languages very well, they are met with discrimination and presented little opportunity. Many of them fall into crime, prostitution and drug addiction. Hopefully, through the work of educators and humanitarian organizations, this trend can be altered and the promise of a better future fulfilled.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.