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Monday, November 28, 2011

Akha, Lahu, Karen: Real and Unreal Hill Tribe Villages

A little beyond the Lisu village Lisu Lao Ta, which we discussed in the previous post, was an Akha village, which we drove in to, and received a relatively friendly treatment, from the few people there. Most of the adults out for the day, with most of the women somewhere selling handcrafts to tourists far and wide. Like the Lisu village, this was quite well developed with paved streets, electric power, a radio tower and many houses with TV.

We then went down to villages closer to the river, using the map provided by the Garden Home in the Tha-ton posting, including a presumably Karen Christian village by a little Catholic church, where a woman was doing back-strap weaving with her husband. All the way along, there were a variety of women walking on the road side with partial forms of traditional dress indicating the variety of tribal peoples in the district.

Then on to another sparser village in the hills where the men were bringing in large bundles of firewood in baskets on their backs, and a man in crutches who had lost a foot in an accident was looking after his young son.

We then drove high up into the hills along a tortuous four wheel drive track to overlook one of the more isolated villages, probably another Akha village from the headscarf of the one woman we saw. Notably, although looking a little desolate, this village was bristling with TV aerials and had solar panels set up to provide power to individual dwellings.

I then somewhat reluctantly made a short detour for 240 baht into one of the tourist 'hill tribe villages' which are quaint marketing stunts where you can see four or so different tribal groups all beautifully dressed up in their traditional costume run by a collective, with all the women on show and selling simple tourist hand-weaving items while the men folk lounge around in the background acting as informal security guards.

These aren't real hill tribe villages at all and are in fact completely ersatz tourist shopping malls cum 'human zoo' traditional costume museums, but love them or hate them, as I tend to, they do give a quick view of several traditional forms of dress and an opportunity to buy some trinkets. They are also reputed by tourist operators to provide a better income then slaving in the fields although this clearly comes at a high price by comparison with the more autonomous lives of more resourceful hill tribe groups.

They did provide really neat pictures here of elderly Lahu people and children, two younger Lahu 'big ear' women in red costumes and charming Padaung Karen 'long neck' women. Lahu trace descent bilaterally, and typically practice matrilocal residence. The traditional Lahu religion is polytheistic. Karens were Animists originally, but today the majority are Buddhist in conjunction with Animism, with some having converted to Christianity, particularly Catholicism.

The Akha, who are ubiquitous with the aluminum ball and coin studded hats, don't buy into this arrangement because they are very experienced commercial operators and set up their own stalls on the periphery, or make it right into your bungalow compound to catch you with their wares, first thing in the morning before your defenses are up.

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