Stickman Readers' Submissions April 13th, 2007

The Akha Hill Tribes Of Northern Thailand

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One of the most popular activities for many visitors to Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand is a trekking trip to one of the many hill tribe villages. Photos of these minority groups are regularly splashed all over tourist brochures and internet sites. Tour groups are a daily feature in some of the villages as visitors snoop around, buy a few handicrafts, take some photos and then leave.

Most of the hill tribes are subsistence farmers and have been marginalised by the Thai government. The government refuses to recognise their existence by providing ID cards or formal rights. The tourists who enter the villages rarely understand the problems they face and the harsh conditions forced upon them.

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There are many different types of hill tribes in Chiang Mai province and others in the North, and each has their own distinct language, dress and culture. The Akha tribe are considered to be the poorest group and as a result, they receive particular attention from missionaries, charity workers and anthropologists. They are known to the Thais as Egor, a derogatory name, and have one of the lowest status levels in the country.

They originated from Tibet over a century ago before migrating to Burma, Laos and Thailand, along with other hill tribes. The military regime in Burma has continually persecuted them over the last couple of decades, causing many of them to flee across the border into Thailand as refugees. Although some Akhas have lived here since childhood, they are still stateless and routinely exploited by drug lords and corrupt officials.

The Akhas use a language known as Lolo-Burmese however it has never been written down so there is no physically documented evidence of their history. They have relied upon information being passed by mouth from generation to generation. Today, civil rights activists have created a new system making it possible for their language to be written down.

The number of Akhas currently living in Northern Thailand is thought to be over 50,000, with the majority of them located in villages in Chiang Rai province, and some closer to Chiang Mai. Their villages are often in remote spots, making it difficult for them to travel, and can sometimes only be reached by treacherous dirt trails. They survive by subsistence farming, growing vegetables and rice on the sides of the mountains, and raising chickens and pigs.

The best way to see the Akha is is to take a trekking trip. You can also seem them vigorously hawking their trinkets and jewellery at the night market. But trekking in Northern Thailand is a far more authentic way of witnessing their humble lifestyle firsthand. Most trekking trips from Chiang Mai include a night at an Akha village. Find out about organising a trekking trip in Chiang Mai for Northern Thailand.

The men can usually be found working in nearby rice and tobacco fields, starting first thing in the morning and continuing until sunset. They are paid on average 100 baht per day, which is well below the national minimum wage. Some of the villages still don't have running water, meaning regular trips to the well to fill up large receptacles. A few villages have benefited from connections to mains electricity, which has drastically improved their living standards. Their simple houses are constructed from bamboo and grass and accommodate the entire family.

The presence of missionary groups in Chiang Mai has introduced other problems of a religious nature. The assistance of these groups is often tied to conditions that they try to impose on the Akhas. Although some of them have been converted to Christianity, the methods of the missionaries have been questioned and it remains a controversial subject. But it’s a dilemma, and most Akha are happy for the economic benefits missionaries and trekking people bring to their village.

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The missionaries say that they are able to help them achieve a better quality of life, but certain practises such as taking children out of their homes creates many doubters. The Akha religion is linked with animism, and they believe in a world filled with spirits, both good and bad. There is a constant erosion of their unique and interesting culture brought about by the actions of certain Christian groups.

Despite not having ID cards, some of the younger women have left their villages in search of work in the cities. Their lowly status and lack of paperwork has meant they have had to resort to prostitution or poorly paid massage jobs. Even worse, a number of the men are recruited by drug barons for smuggling across the Burmese border. A government crackdown on drugs in 2003 left more than 2,000 people dead, and many of them were thought to be Akha.

The future of this hill tribe is uncertain as tourist numbers increase and the Thai authorities refuse to grant them citizenship. More and more trekking trips are stomping through their villages turning them into human zoos. It's hard to see how they can retain their unique culture with such a steady flow of voyeurs constantly knocking on their doors.

Stickman's thoughts:

It's a sad plight this group and others face in Northern Thailand. And yes, they are discriminated against in such a way that few ever seem to "make it". It's all rather sad.

nana plaza