Meeting the Thai Akha Hill Tribe

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Things to do


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January, 2019

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Whilst staying in Chiang Rai, we spent a day with the Akha hill tribe. The journey to their village of Suan Pa took an hour and we could see the Doi Tung mountain range ahead. On route, Mai our guide told us about the Doi Tung Development Project founded by the Princess Mother. The hill tribes were heavily involved in opium growing/trading and operated a ‘slash and burn’ policy damaging the forests. The project encouraged the growing other viable economic crops and helped them set up local industries.

Having turned off the main road, a narrow concrete road which twisted and turned led us to the village where we met our local guide, Archai.

Before our trek began, we saw the large white washed Catholic church of St Gregory and met a family preparing a pig for a celebratory feast. The newly slaughtered animal was being butchered in the open air on wooden chopping boards laid on the floor, whilst a huge wok on an open fire cooked already cut meat and a cucumber like vegetable.

Having been provided with water and doused in mosquito repellent, we set off with Archai leading, and Mai translating as he only spoke the Akha dialect. Archai was resplendent in his colourfully embroidered black cotton waistcoat and he carried a large knife.

Having left the village, we crossed a small stream on stepping stones and began walking uphill on a narrow, steep and muddy path. The slopes were covered with coffee bushes and some were beginning to flower. Although the going was difficult, Archai kept stopping to pluck leaves of all descriptions and tell us how the hill tribe used them: in cooking, for medicinal purposes or to make household goods like brushes.

We learned about worms in bamboo which could be eaten, how to tell the difference between poisonous and edible mushrooms, how to use a banana leaf as a bag, and the part that birds, bees and insects play in the annual cycle.

Eventually we reached the top and followed a broad open area for a short while until we had to head down another steep, narrow and muddy track but this time, there was a sheer drop on one side. It was hot, steamy and slippery and I was very grateful for Archai’s guiding hand.

Eventually, nearing the village, we reached a beautiful clearing with large waterfall: the stop for our picnic lunch.

Large banana leaves were cut down and laid on the ground to create a table on the sandy shore of the pool. A small fire was quickly established (sadly with a zippo lighter), and a lady from the village arrived with two huge blue plastic bags bearing lots of Tupperware and a red container of sticky rice. A long piece of bamboo was cut, and Tilapia fish soup was poured into it and left in the fire to cook.

There was lots of smoke, but it was a fabulous experience with the sun streaming through the high trees. When the fish was ready, we sat down on the banana leaves, with banana leaf plates. A bamboo ‘serving bowl’ was placed in the middle and herbs and chillies were emptied in, before the fish broth was poured in and finally the pieces of fish including the head. The Tupperware boxes were emptied around the bamboo and contained cooked minced pork, a chilli and herb salsa, cooked green vegetables and lovely fresh watercress-like salad leaves. It was absolutely delicious

Having cleared away, we walked back to the village, and drove to the factory with its various components devoted to rug tufting, ceramic making, coffee making and weaving, all providing work for the hill tribes and helping them enjoy more prosperous, healthy lives. Here we enjoyed a cup of Doi Tung coffee and bought some useful things from the factory shop for home.

Helen Jackson

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