Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Thai Akha Tribes

The next morning we wash in the river, since drinking water is precious. It is five-thirty and the whole village is awake and working. I shake my shoes, which are not allowed to be worn in the huts, in case of nasties and go out to inspect the two female elephants that are to take us halfway up into the hills. The cows are young, but not as young as the two elephant boys. One is eight, the other not more than twelve. Nevertheless they are experts or  they would not be trusted with the elephants: very expensive beasts that the Karen often hire out to other tribes. The elephants look hollow-cheeked and we ask if they're well fed. "Oh yes," says Ping, "but you must be careful not to overfeed elephants. When they get too fat they produce an oil from their brow which runs down into their mouths and, once swallowed, sends them crazy. In that state they will attack anyone, even their handlers." We recalled that a German tourist had been trampled to death by an elephant that had run amuck a week before our trip. Personally I was glad that the elephants were trim little misses. If I had my way they would be enrolled in Weight Watchers and sent to aerobics classes.
The journey by elephant up to a Lahu village is slow and ponderous, except when the trail widens, then both elephants begin running to get ahead of each other while their handlers shout and threaten them with whatever scares elephants (no supper?). The elephants seem to have this fierce competitive spirit when it comes to being in front. Once they're there, they slow back down to an amble worthy of a country yokel. And these are the cows. We are told that they take the sexes out inturns: the next tourist trek will get the bulls. The bulls can't bear being behind each other. The elephant trek is along a well-worn path through low vegetation in a steep-sided valley. Banana palms are the tallest trees, until we come to forested slopes, where there are copses of majestic hardwoods. The younger of the two elephant boys is easily distracted and keeps jumping down when he sees something in the grasses, though both of them talk incessantly to their elephants. When they want more than an amble, they use the flat of their machete blades on the elephant's brow, which makes me wince. The younger boy starts whistling 'Rock Of Ages' and looks startled as I join in with the words. Then he grins and looks down, shyly.  We leave the elephants, our posteriors the worse for wear, and climb to a Lahu village on an escarpment. This is a poorer place than the Karen village, though we are proudly shown the rice grain store, a hut the size of a small car. It is a third full. Near to it is a wooden see-saw device worked with the foot and used to pound the grain. There is a nice view over the valley from the plateau, but it is doubtful the Lahu get much time to appreciate it.
The Lahu are found in Burma, Laos, Vietnam and China, as well as Thailand. There are about thirty thousand of them in and around the Golden Triangle. Fairly strict laws, enforced by the headman, keep down incidences of drunkenness, gambling and smoking opium. There is no place for the radical in the Lahu community: one either conforms or leaves the Village. The Lahu recognise a number of spirits and gods, among them a supreme god called Qui-sha. There are Christian tribes too.
After a meal by a stream back down in the valley, we begin a long hot climb up into the high hills. The sun pounds on our heads, since most of the forest canopy has been removed in a 'slash and burn' policy by the tribes. They need areas to plant their rice and the only way they know how to get them is to burn the forest. Instead of fertilizing the soil, they move the rice fields to a new location, and down comes more teak. This policy seems to be still in operation, since we come across smoking areas of land that add their heat to the already stifling day.
We come to a hut on the trail outside which sits an old-looking Akha woman. The Akha are truly 'hill' tribes, since they will not build a village below a thousand feet. The woman sells us bottled water and invites us to sit in the shade. She is wearing a headdress decorated with beads, coloured feathers and silver baubles, and traditional clothes, also heavily decorated. Tony asks her if she lives alone and Ping translates.
"My husband died several years ago at the age of forty-seven, of natural causes," she replies. "What natural causes?" Tracy asks, thinking, she tells us later, of malaria or TB. "Opium," says the woman. Her teeth flash brilliantly in the sun. Ping explains that they
are not gold fillings, but have been painted. "The Akha paint their teeth gold each morning, so that the other tribes think they are rich," he tells us.
After we leave the woman, who must have been banished from the tribe at some time, we go out -onto a saddle between two hills. The heat is tremendous and three of us have trouble in keeping up with Ping. Only Tony can match the guide's pace at this point. Ping calls back and points to a distant peak.
"The Akha," he shouts.
follow the curving ridge round with my eyes, as it swoops and soars, swoops and soars, until I reach the end of the chain of peaks, which is also the highest point. There, perched on a rounded summit, I can see a cluster of huts, half-hidden by trees. They seem miles away, up in the misty regions of the heavens. There is a smoky atmosphere hanging over the devastated valley between our saddle and this celestial habitation. We appear to be leaving the real world behind and entering a place found only between the pages of some Rider Haggard novel. A heat haze causes the distant encampment to shine as if it is indeed some trick, a fata morgana of the high forests. In the nearby bushes the crickets and cicadas are making a tremendous noise, equal to that of a dozen chain saws. It is all very unnerving.
"Are you sure they're insects, making that sound?" I yell to Ping, and he nods.
We plod onwards. I have taken a towel from my backpack and cover my hair with it. The sun has given me a raging headache, despite the cap I wear to protect my bald streak. I hear Annette murmur, "Just leave me to die," but she still keeps walking. Finally we reach a forested area and are able to get out of the sun. It is still hot, but bearably so. The last saddle lies before us, and we walk along the watershed thinking of ice-cold lemonade or beer.

The climb to the village at the end of the saddle, is steep, and saps completely any energy we have left. We have now been climbing some five hours under a fierce sun. Ping shows us to a long hut, not on stilts, in which there are split bamboo platforms raised a foot off the dirt floor. It is dim and cool inside and we flop onto the springy bamboo, after drinking the rest of our water. Moments later, vague forms enter the long hut and sit on the floor, watching us. Some of the women have come to sell us their beaded goods, but we are exhausted. After a long while, most of the women leave, but one with a baby on her back insists we give her some coins. She wants to make her child a headdress with them. We find some silver coins and hand them over.

(Once again, apologies for the presentation, which I have attempted to correct, but my IT skills are not brilliant when dealing with a strange format).

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