In the mountainous, border territories of southern China, northern Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma live many ethnic minority groups. Some of them still adhere to a traditional life-style, with colorful outfits and unique customs. Many villages and regions tapped the touristic market, maintaining the traditional building styles and putting on traditional costumes for those Kodak moments. Yet, there still are places where guests are a rarity and life goes on according to its old rhythm. We found this in the slightly forgotten Phongsali province of northern Laos, inhabited by Akha tribes that came here from China. The Akha, especially the women, are quite characteristic in their dark indigo dresses and jewelry made of silver rings and coins.
Phongsali is a bit Lao and a bit Chinese. The old town with its open-spaced shops, the restaurants and license plates on cars tell us it may be more of the latter.
Here, we hook up with Sai, a guide, and travel on local buses, then on a boat, taking a rest at a Laoseng village and doing a few hours of trekking in the mountains. It all will lead us to an isolated Akha village where we’ll stay a night. Along the way, everything’s encompassed by smoke. In the dry season it lingers everywhere over slashed and burned fields. The horizon’s short, suffocated by the smoke. The visibility’s only one or two mountain chains. The heat’s pushing down on us but Sai’s a good guide, taking breaks when we indeed need them. We also have lunch and try frog, for the first time. It tastes like a slimy water chicken.
These two days are an incredible experience on the border of reality, augmented by the fact that we’re accompanied by a rather introvert Sai. Maybe if we were there with other tourists, we’d experience the events differently. What we see becomes the only subject of conversation on the way back. I try to discipline myself, to put it all in a chronological order but I’m unable to. It all becomes a long and chaotic description unrelated to the impressions left in my head.
We’re trekking in silence, the smoky vistas unfolding around us. When we approach the first village we see indigo-clad ghosts. The women in traditional dresses move slowly and quietly, they have weaved baskets with firewood on their backs, a belt around the foreheads supporting the weight. Nobody runs to greet us, no one rises their voice, or laughs, or waves. We see only shy smiles. While crossing the village, the animals — pigs, dogs, chickens — harmoniously eat out of a trough.
The chief’s hut, like other huts, has no windows. It’s dark inside and the smoke from the fireplace makes us cry. Women and men are like different species here – women are quiet, shy and imprisoned in complicated dresses, while men wear modern t-shirts, smoke and talk to each other. Even little girls wear headdresses, when they grow up these will become very elaborate. After tea we’re back on the trail, joined by a chief’s son who’s going to another village to look for a wife.
The village where we’ll spend the night is located at the top of a mountain, some 1200 meters above sea level. We’re there at the sunset; a huge hog grazes on a slope right next to us, enjoying the last rays of sun. We get to the highest vantage point and out come curious boys and instantly surround us. The previous guests were here three months ago, so the kids are very interested in us and keen to get candy from Sai, too. The women cast shy glances from their huts or while returning from firewood gathering or with water in huge bamboo tubes they hold on their backs. The ones with babies have bare breasts as they believe it will protect the health of their children. Many believe that cameras can steal souls, so they turn their heads and only one agrees to a photo.
There’s no electricity or running water in the village, so our evening ablutions come down to washing our hands and faces in the water brought from a stream down the mountain. There are no toilets, and because we’re the biggest curiosity here, we have to wait until dark to go and do our business. We spend the evening in the chief’s hut, waiting while the women, with flashlights on their foreheads, prepare food. In a dark corner a stream of light illuminates a baby being fed on the knees of a mother. Dogs are circulating around a low table, waiting for scraps that might fall to the ground. The table goes back and forth between the eating area and cooking area, the women put food on it and wait until men finish eating and only then eat themselves. We have the supper and drink greenish moonshine that’s been filtered through leaves. After the 100% non-vegetarian lunch that Sai’s offered us, we’re surprised to find only plants on our plates. Steamed leaves, cooked bamboo shoots and wild mushroom’s in soup, all foraged in the surrounding area. There’s also rice, salt and dried chillies and thin, watery sauce for dipping. The host uses his flashlight to show us what we’re eating. It’s very simple, a bit bitter but also surprisingly tasty.
After the meal, it’s time to socialize and smoke tobacco from the bong. The subdued atmosphere of the huts instantly livens up. When we begin to pull out gifts we’ve brought, all the flashlights focus their beams on us. We had doubts if we should bring anything to people whose existence depends on self-sufficiency, but the looks we get clearly tell us that any gifts will be very appreciated. The happiness is obvious and satisfying when we hand out seeds and bars of soap. It’s an intense situation and we give out many things we have with us — our everyday items. Later, a neighbor comes with a little boy in her arms. He was bitten by a bug and a part of the sting stayed in the wound. Now it is covered with puss and sores. There are no medicines here but luckily I brought some iodine so the least we can do is to disinfect the skin. The boy patiently lets me help him and does not complain at all.
The Akha have male and female sleeping areas, separated from the living quarters by curtains. We’ll sleep on the men’s side, where the elders would sleep. While we’re laying side by side with Sai and the chief’s son I wander if I’ll be able to sleep at all with the outside sounds penetrating the thin walls. It all seems to be right next to me. I’m afraid of bugs, insects or other creatures but the exhaustion takes over and I instantly sail off into the darkness.
In the morning we see a woman who in a fit of madness is throwing stones and chasing her fleeing daughter. Sai explains. The animistic beliefs and ancestor and earth worship are a source of many superstitions. The birth of twins is considered very bad luck and the twins are given liquor and poisoned. Such an event brings bad luck to the whole village. The afflicted family has to leave and follow the shamans instructions on how to appease the spirits. Only after time and offerings, the family may come back and rebuild their house. If they are poor, they may be unable to sacrifice enough animals and fulfill the shaman’s instructions. According to Sai, the woman lost her babies. The event that brought bad luck to the village, the exclusions and condemnation and her incredible sacrifice drove her mad. It was too much to bear.
The women go out to do work in the fields or to gather plants and firewood. Boys go to school while men linger about. Usually, it’s boys who have a shot at education because girls help mothers with work. Most women in the area can speak only a dialect, not Lao. We’re going back. In another village we finally see men at work. They’re building houses. Some villagers moved from higher up because water was scarce. At a hut there’s the customary tea from a thermos flask. Most of the family’s at work, only the grandpa is smoking opium in his den while the grandma takes care of the little one and from time to time stirs indigo stored in huge barrels.
The mountain sides are scorched for growing opium. It’s illegal, but for some Akha may be the only source of cash that can be exchanged for items otherwise unavailable. The way to the river is long. Along it we see a family going uphill; Sai says it takes days to go to city and back. First to the river, than boats and buses, a place to sleep and the same in reverse order. They’re carrying everything from corrugated roofing sheets to mattresses. At least men are participating, though the load is equally distributed. The kids are walking upfront, than loaded horses, a group of women with stuff bound on straps to their foreheads and finally men. They will leave their cargo in a village along the way and make return trips to carry it all up. It’s not easy to be Akha.