Published: January 14th 2007November 16th 2006
Yes, the year here is 2549 owing to the Buddhist Calendar but there are no spaceships or time machines here, just good old tuk tuks and local buses with swirly fans. And it was via both of these means that we began our journey on the same day as leaving the forgettable Pakbeng in Lao to Chang Rai
. For some unknown reason the first 5km of the journey were driven at about 3kph but once the driver had found 2nd gear with a crunch we cruised our way through farmland to our destination. Parting company at the bus station with Phil and Kate we haggled a price on a tuk tuk to the Akha Riverhouse
, an out of town but beautiful collection of small riverside bungalows with en suite bathrooms. After a well deserved shower we ate and walked into Chang Rai to the night bazaar where a bustling block of stalls sold a huge range of beautifully crafted gifts, paintings and jewellery before we returned along the dark dusty streets for some much needed rest. Revitalised we pinched a couple of bicycles (actually they were free for guests) and rode to the Hilltribe Museum
to gain a little information before
taking an excursion to a nearby Akha Tribe. Inside, the deserted museum the wealth of information was excellent and took you on a guided journey of the history of Opium in hilltribe culture before providing in depth analysis of the background and customs of all the different tribes which reside in the area. With a keen interest in the Akha tribe we learned among other things how gates were erected at the entrance to the villages as demarcation between the human and spirit realms, how the Akha decide the location of their houses upon the breaking of an egg at the proposed site and how the birth of twins is regarded as an abnormity warranting expulsion from the village. Strolling through several more thoughtful and well displayed exhibits we returned to the Akha Riverhouse for a 4pm pick up truck which took us from city to jungle in a matter of minutes.
The journey was of course longer than that and longer for me being the only one in the back of the pick up truck but we traversed our way up steep unpaved roads through dense jungle and tea plantations for around 40 minutes before arriving at the Akha Hillhouse
. There we carried our bags to our hilltop bungalow which sat on stilts high above a lush jungle valley and realised to our surprise that far from being the mystical, spiritual hilltribe about which we had learned, this place had TV's, a decent restaurant and even internet! Sitting down for dinner however we began to talk with Achu the resident trek guide and realised that in the reality that there are very few untouched tribes left this was just a natural progression for the Akha people
. As Achu explained, just 10% of Akha's remain true to their spiritual beliefs and the other 90% amazingly are Christian owing to the visit of an American missionary. As a result they no longer build the entrance gates, no longer drop the egg to decide house location and no longer consider twins the work of the devil. The Akha people having migrated from Tibet and still wishing to come in droves have found it tough in Thailand too with restrictions placed on their entitlements for citizenship and owing to tough new regulations on deforestation have found their only skill in working the land to be fruitless.
Now that electricity has been
in place for 15 years and the land which they can touch has been overused they have had little choice but to cash in on tourism to make a living. Sadly this surely must be at the expense of customs and even historical respect for their lineage. Achu himself is living proof of the influx of tourism being able to speak excellent English without any study and just learning from the visitors to the village over just 1 year but curiously even he did not know of some of the customs we had learned his ancestors had practiced. As we helped him with his English however, Achu explained some of the curiosities of the Thai language for example the word "Mai" simultaneously means new, horse, no, dog and come depending on the tone with which you say it! As the Cicadas screeched persistently in the background and the nearby fire was stoked we also spoke with 23 year old Ratri (her Thai name) or Meesay Yezzo (Akha name... and what a name!) a super friendly and sweet girl who took such a shine to Claire that she hugged her constantly and wanted her to stay for a month! Bizarrely, Meesay
had an English boyfriend from Manchester who sells tropical fish and whom she sees once a year. At this point in conversation Achu perked up confused and we had to explain the difference between Sells fish, being selfish and shellfish which turned out to be a mighty fine example of how the English Language can be equally confusing. After spending a fantastic evening with the Achu and Meesay and dodging Night bees which we never knew or wished existed we returned to our bungalow to find a whopping spider in the bathroom and nervously went to bed.
At 6am we got up and stepped outside to a dawn chorus and an amazing misty sunrise over the jungle of the valley before setting out for a walk around the surrounding area for the day. Walking up through the village past men slicing and stripping bamboo for roofing and Mrs Yezzo's place where we bought a bracelet or two we veered off into the bamboo forest and tall shady banana trees around the mouth of the valley. Walking along the narrow path we were amazed at just how many different varieties of bamboo there were and one type in particular held
our attention as we wiggled it lightly at its base to produce the most overenthusiastic wobble at the top. (small things...) Approaching a persistent gushing through the trees we arrived at a tall waterfall where on the lower sections I slipped on some moss, managed to severely bruise my tailbone and save my camera in one undignified swoop. Tentatively shuffling along a slippery boardwalk in the spray of the falls we rejoined the path which led us down and out to the main tea plantation where the neatest landscape of row upon row of short trimmed bushes cloaked the banks and gave drastic contrast to the chaotic jungle on the surrounding hills. Striding through more orderly tea plantations we entered the Chinese Village of Pong Namron
where the houses where noticably different and missing stilts and where sprinklers showered the rows of tea and dogs and kids filled the streets with barks and laughter. Skirting around the dogs and greeting the kids playing a kind of marbles with flip flops we walked amongst the tea pickers and around the tea processing warehouse to the pace of the music being blared from its rafters.
After a cold drink sitting alongside
a man drinking whisky with his elderly mother at 10am we continued down the track to the Thai village where again the settlements differed and sat alongside an ornate temple and where we met a trio of kids on tyreless bicycles who agreed to show us around their school. Dumping the bicycles on the ground they walked us up into the main playing field where we peered through slatted classrooms, music rooms and a computer and library room and where I challenged them to a game of football in the torn net. Exhausted from playing in the heat and dribbling around chickens we asked the boys about a nearby waterfall where we could cool off and they vowed to take us there. When we arrived through a thick wall of bamboo the kids swarmed around a bamboo pole which lay across the water and although I jumped in to cool off and swing about like a monkey and got leaches on my shins I felt huge in comparison to them and self consiously got out and dressed. After a long days walking we strolled back to the Akha village via the stupendously steep hill at the top of which we
both very nearly rolled back down in complete exhaustion. Before taking a siesta I watched with astonishement how the local kids had gathered in the main street to play a game involving elastic bands which they piled up and retreated about 20 metres before throwing their flip flops (thongs to Aussies) at a lightning pace across the dusty road. When a direct hit was made all the kids would yelp with joy and scramble to collect the rubber bands which were flying through the air. At this point I stepped up to have a go to their approval but as I explained to the kids afterwards I never really had a chance with my sandal type shoe which is why my throw careered off to the right narrowly missing a goat and ended up in the back of a pick up truck.
That evening we again spent time talking to Achu and Meesay and took time to teach Achu and two other teenage villages some new English words. In return they kindly wrote our names in Thai for us in my journal ending a memorable experience after which we were sad to leave and they sad to have us
leave. The next morning being a Sunday and the day of our departure we awoke to another serene mountain sunrise and out of fascination at the village being unexpectedly Christian I walked up the hill to see the Church service. Well, it was not as I expected. Contrary to Achu's assurances that the whole village would be in attendence I arrived to find 6 adults and 5 toddlers faintly singing along to a teenager in a beeny hat playing the electric guitar. With most of the locals standing about their houses sweeping the streets or just relaxing and without a vicar or priest in sight the scene at the church was more like a youth club music practice (which they clearly needed) rather than a devout Christian service but it was worth seeing all the same. After breakfast Claire and I took another stroll among the tight dusty streets of the village whilst morning swallows swooped above the bamboo houses and all around lay drying washing and drying tea. At one house a tiny boy with a cheeky grin came out and Claire kept on making him chuckle by doing the tickle monster thing to which we constantly returned with
an adorable little smile.
And it was with that cheeky smile in the warming morning sun that we finished out time in the Akha hilltribe, jumped into a pick up to a flurry of smiles and waves and began our journey to Pai. Although it was not even close to the spiritual otherworldly tribe we had expected, our time with the people of the village particularly Achu and Meesay and the surrounding area were a fascinating insight into life in a modern day hilltribe which has no option but to reap the benefits of tourist interest. Bouncing down the bumpy road through the landscape we had walked the day before we almost felt like we had left a little piece of us in the village but we guess that with every piece each tourist leaves behind the Akha people lose a piece of their history forever.
There are more photos below