Like most tribal peoples around the world, the Akha are farmers and grow a variety of crops including subsistence crops such as rice, corn and pumpkin as well as cash crops like coffee and tea. They toil long and hard in their fields almost every day of the week. Most Akha families also raise chickens, pigs, water buffalo and sometimes dogs for meat. Though not as proficient as their neighboring tribe, the Lahu, Akha people also like fishing. They often do this by damming a creek with boulders, causing the water level to drop, after which they simply go in with nets and buckets to gather the fish. However, for a quick catch some of them will simply knock a fish out with a well-aimed stone from their slingshot, and then scoop it out of the river for dinner.
Their culture is a rich and colorful one, with many festivals in a year. One of these is the New Rice Festival, a time of thanksgiving for the harvest. During this time, friends and family gather round a traditional feast of spicy minced pork, steamed pumpkin, bitter greens with peanut salsa, pickled vegetables, pork and potato soup and, of course, fresh new rice. Watch this video of a typical Akha meal:
The tall, bamboo swing, an identifying mark of an Akha village, is open during this time for anyone who dares to brave its heights. Sometimes, it is constructed so that the swinger soars over the edge of the mountain and then back again. Another traditional game is the greased bamboo pole with money at the top. Lithe Akha boys will shimmy up barefooted to capture their prize with a crowd cheering below.
Another distinguishing factor of the Akha people is their beautiful dress. Akha women are known throughout the world for their colorful and elaborate headdresses. In Thailand, there are three styles of these which depend on the woman’s clan. The first is called the Ulo (pronounced Oo-low), which is a conical shape and adorned with tiny beads in all the primary colors and small, flat pieces of pounded silver. The second, the Lomi (pronounced Low-mee), sports a flat, silver-covered piece in the back of the headdress, with many silver balls and coins adorning the front. This is generally the most expensive headdress to craft because of the abundance of silver. The third style is the Pami (pronounced Pa-mee) and is distinctive for its wide triangular shape which folds over the ears.
There are innumerable Akha lullabies, poems and legends which deal with everything from creation to modern-day romance. One well-known Akha legend is called the Holy Buffalo Skin. As the story goes, the Creator God called together a representative from each people group to give them the sacred words. The words were written on many different materials: wood, stone, bark and animal skin. The representative from the Akha tribe chose the words written on water buffalo skin. But as he was returning home, it started to rain and the skin got wet. He made a fire to dry it off, and as it was drying it gave off a delicious aroma. He thought of his long journey home, and grew so hungry he could no long stand it and ate the holy buffalo skin. When he returned to his people, they were furious that he had eaten the precious book. Now, they had no way of knowing the Creator God’s way of life. They simply had to wait until He sent them a messenger or one of their own tribe went to another people to learn the sacred words. Watch a video clip of this legend:
The Akha people have several traditional dances that they perform at various special events such as New Rice Festivals. Some dances portray typical scenes from Akha life such as spinning thread or pounding rice, while other, simpler forms consist of forming a circle and taking side steps to the rhythm, usually around a large bonfire and sometimes accompanied by cymbals, gongs and drums as well as large bamboo poles sounding out the beat.
Watch a traditional dance:
For more beautiful photographs and descriptions of Akha life, please visit: http://akha.tumblr.com/