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Lost in Phongsaly

Lost in Phongsaly

Despite its small population, few countries in the world have such a rich and diverse mix of ethnic groups as Laos; 149 ethnic groups speaking 82 distinct languages.

One of these groups, the Akha Iko (roughly translated as “intermediate” or “in between”) fled from China about 200-300 years ago following military defeats by the Ho. They settled in the mountains of Phongsaly, Laos’ northernmost province. Like all ethnic people, the Akha have a very distinctive style of dress. The women wear richly woven clothes decorated with silver coins, mainly piastres from the Indochina colonial period.

Social structure and marriage

Each village chooses a leader (Pi) and deputy who are assisted by other village elders, the numbers varying according to the importance of the village. Young people choose their own spouses independently. While the young men prefer women who will work hard in the fields and at home and can weave, the women prefer mates, who are robust, hardworking and eschew opium. Something seems to happen along the way as smoking opium is common amongst older men!

Ko Loma woman hand

Literacy

Another distinctive feature of this tribe is that they are illiterate. The Akha revel in explaining this ‘shortcoming’.

Years ago the father of writing gave all men characters which they copied on paper. Only the Akha printed them on a buffalo skin. While other people retained the paper and learned the characters, the Akha ate the skin! Thus the characters were digested and processed.

So while they are unable to read or write, they are noted for their phenomenal memory. They are gifted raconteurs with a great oral tradition and their stories are passed down from generation to generation and strictly observed in the belief that any deviation will lead, sooner or later, to serious misfortune.

Farming and property

The Akha generally practise shifting cultivation and show little interest in owning landed property. They work an area and abandon it when its fertility runs out. Thus every three or four years the village moves on. They live in identical wooden homes with thatched roofs, now increasingly made with corrugated sheets. Inside are generally two rooms, one for the head of the household, his wife and children and the other room for married sons. When the village moves on these houses are abandoned. In fact, it is considered unlucky to live in such a house and even taking wood from there for cooking or eating is strictly forbidden. The only property that the Akha value are the silver ornaments the women have, rudimentary instruments and their livestock.


After life

Akha notions of life and death are simple. A human being comprises of three souls and bodies and if any one of them is absent, the person falls ill. The simultaneous departure of all three causes death.

Despite the simplicity of their lives, the funerals can be quite elaborate. When a member of the community dies a pig is sacrificed and its entrails cooked in rice, then put in the mouth of the deceased one. This is supposed to give the body strength on its way to the House of Ancestors. Corpses are sometimes kept at home for up to 60 days and there is no weeping or other overt signs of sorrow.

 

Akha today

Like many minorities around the globe today, the Akha culture is facing an onslaught from the modern world. Older people are unable to cope with the changes they see before them, while the younger ones are increasingly alienated from the traditions of their parents.

While many young women shun their beautiful traditional clothes for the ubiquitous jeans and T-shirts, it’s not unusual to see, in remote villages, Akha girls in traditional dress with a mobile phone stuck to the ear.

- By Michel Huteau - 

 

post card

Michel Huteau, writer and photographer, has been living in Laos for the last 25 years. Describing himself
as being “tirelessly curious” he has travelled the world documenting its people, their history and culture,
and most importantly, their humanity. To appreciate his work fully, visit his bookshop where he
also sells postcards made by him.

La Carterie du Laos, Rue François Ngin, Vientiane

 

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