Spread across the northern reaches of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand, and into southern China, in a region that has long been isolated and neglected, the hills are largely the preserve of a scattering of animist tribal people who have moved south from China over the past two centuries.
They included the Hmong, Mien, Lenten, Lahu and Akha, who generally survive by slash-and-burn clearing of the forest on the steep and inaccessible slopes, growing most of what they need and bartering with the lowlanders for anything else.
Thanks to its recent accessibility, the north of Laos is one of the best locations to experience some of these cultures that still have only occasional contact with foreigners.
Under threat from land concessions given to the Chinese who can cross the border with ease, as well as government drives to integrate them into more urbanized settings, it would be no surprise if these strongly independent, self-sufficient communities soon started to disappear in all but name.
One of the main locations from which to visit the hill-tribes is Muang Namtha, close to the border with China. However, even further north, the town of Muang Long, close to the Burmese border, is close to largely unvisited hill communities. Despite being a district capital, Muang Long only numbers about 3,500 residents.
Arriving in the middle of the wet (low) season in June, I saw no other foreigners other than Chinese who had crossed the border to do business.
But what Muang Long does have is one of the best English-speaking hill-tribe guides you could ever stumble upon, by the name of Tui.
A former English teacher, a speaker of the Akha language and a pioneer in tours to remote hill-tribe villages in Muang Long District, Tui is now head of the local government tourism office — and he is still a guide.
We arranged to head off into the hills to the north of Muang Long on small motorbikes for a few days to visit the mainly Akha hill-tribes that live in the upland areas. It was the start of one of the most fascinating and interesting experience of my time in Laos.
The Akha people are speakers of a Tibeto-Burman language who migrated south in waves from China’s Yunnan province, first in the mid-19th century, then again following the communist victory in 1949, and finally during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Most of them also speak Lao, but having a guide who can converse in Akha puts them at ease.
Most Akha villages number only 50 to 60 households, which mean the population of most villages is 300 to 350 people. The Akha are animists and believe in spirits that need to be appeased by various rituals.
All Akha villages have two “spirit gates” made of bamboo and hung with woven bamboo “stars” that block bad spirits from entering the village. All the villagers must pass through the gates on leaving or entering the village.
At the highest point of the village the Akha construct a “swing” on four wooden legs, used annually to thank the spirits for the harvest at the end of the rainy season in September.
Each year the twine rope is replaced and the ritual repeated. In the interim all the villagers are strictly forbidden to touch the swing. The spiritual life of a village is the domain of a shaman, in Akha villages very often a woman, as women as considered to be closer to the spirits than men. Often several villages will share one shaman.
As we traveled further away from roads we increasingly came across bare-breasted Akha women. While they cover themselves when descending from their villages to market in the towns, in their own villages and surrounding forests and fields it is the norm for married Akha women to go about their daily business bare-breasted. It is a sign of their status as married women and mothers; the younger unmarried women and girls remain fully clothed.
Akha women are well known for their distinctive headgear, which they wear while not sleeping — at home, while cooking, in the fields and also on trips to market in the towns.
The headgear is covered with silver baubles and coins dating from the French colonial period. The headdresses worn by the Akha women are the most spectacular and elaborate items of Akha dress and used to define their age or marital status within the community.
In mid-adolescence, young Akha girls will start wearing the headdress as a sign of their coming of age. Each headdress is decorated by its owner and each is unique.
One disturbing tradition that my guide explained is the Akha’s superstitions about twins. The Akha consider the birth of twins to be abnormal and extremely ominous. Shocking though it may seem to us, only a couple of decades ago twins would be immediately killed to cleanse the village.
Nowadays, if twins are born then mother and newborn babies are banished to the forest in order to protect the village from bad spirits, although they continue to be supported by the father, who still lives in the village. Word is sent out to the nearest town that an Akha woman has given birth to twins. Apparently, nowadays twin babies will be eagerly adopted by an infertile couple from the town, allowing the mother to return to the village and resume her former life.
Houses in a traditional Akha village are built on wooden stilts, with woven bamboo walls and roofs thatched with grass. Bamboo fences surround the perimeter of each family’s cluster of houses.
Pigs and chickens live under the houses, together with dogs and cats. Surprisingly, this mixture of domestic fauna seems to live harmoniously, each knowing its own place in the scheme of things. Footwear is discarded at the bottom of the wooden steps.
Upstairs, there’s an outside roofed terrace area used during the day. The interior is one large room, with an open cooking section and a raised sleeping area along one side of the room. This sleeping area in turn comprises two separate sections: one for men and one for women. Husbands and wives do not sleep together.
The exception to this rule is a “special house”, which is separate from the main house and much smaller in size. In effect, the special house is a separate sleeping area reserved for the chosen son who will inherit the main house in due course. It is used by the son and his wife purely for sleeping, as all other communal family activities take place in the main house.
The home is the domain of the women, who seem to also do most of the work in the fields, plus collect firewood from the forest and bring water from the stream.
As the afternoon started to draw in we head along an almost impassable track of mud on our bikes on our way to our third village of the day, Saen Khan Kham Village, where we would spend the night.
Once there, we were invited into the house of the former village head. A sturdy man in his 60s, his son had since taken over as head, although undoubtedly the older man still played an important role in decisions. In his youth, he had been responsible for moving the village to a new location at some distance from the “old” village.
I was curious to learn the reasons behind the move, and was told that the old village had been inhabited by the tribal community together with some more recent Akha families that had joined them from the town.
After several sudden unexplained deaths among the community, they had decided that the presence of the newcomers was bringing bad luck, and had decided to move, while the newcomers had agreed to stay on where they were.
Despite having dogs as pets, the Akha also consider dog meat to be the best there is! When I joined the village head on the matted floor for dinner, top of the menu was dog meat, served with sticky rice and cassava leaves.
Having eaten dog before in the North Sulawesi town of Manado, it wasn’t too much of a shock and I was able to make my host happy by sharing his delicacy. Albeit a bit chewy, it was nonetheless very tasty. We were also treated to countless small glasses of lau lao, the local homemade brew made from sticky rice.
Once the oil lamps are turned off at around 9 p.m. it was time for bed. I was surprised that our sleep wasn’t troubled by mosquitoes — I didn’t notice a single one. I was told by the village head in the morning that the location had been deliberately chosen on a slope to avoid stagnate water, plus the lingering smoke from the cooking area filling the main room helped to deter the insects.
The womenfolk had their breakfast before we awoke and left for work in the fields before we had eaten. A copious breakfast was nonetheless served, including noodles with eggs, more sticky rice, and the pièce de resistance: crispy fried small frogs with chilli, eaten whole. Delicious. The wet season brings with it hordes of frogs in the rice fields that can be easily collected when ploughing takes place, as the frightened creatures try to jump clear of the plough.
The next day, after taking in another couple of villages along the hilltop track, we descended back down the valley.
Finally, we came across the all-weather gravel road that took us to the small border town of Xieng Kok on the mighty Mekong, with Burma on the opposite bank. This is the end of the road heading west and only local Laotians are permitted to cross the Mekong over to Burma.
As we returned to Muang Long, I reflected on the experience of momentarily sharing the lives of Akha people who were not used to a falang (foreigner) in their midst. The village head had said that it had been two years since they had received such a visit.
In the years to come, the pressures of tourism (albeit so-called eco-tourism), together with Lao government’s development efforts, will change the Akha’s way of life.
I felt lucky to have witnessed such a culture living in a way that has little changed for centuries. Sadly, I doubt such a lifestyle will exist if I were to return two decades from now.
— Photos by Peter Milne