The Akha Hill Tribe in Chiang Rai Thailand

Author: Andy Burrows

For many visitors to Northern Thailand, a trip to visit one of the region's colourful hill tribes is a necessity. These minority groups have their photos splashed across tourist brochures and websites, adding to their appeal and intrigue. Some of the villages receive tour buses and trekking groups on a regular basis as the financial benefits outweigh any concerns over privacy.

The harsh reality of the situation is that most of these hill tribes have been marginalised and live in abject poverty. Few of them are officially recognised by the Thai authorities and they exist without any ID cards or rights. For the many tourists who are happy to get a glimpse of their rural lifestyles, they are often completely unaware of the hardship and suffering they endure.

There are over half a dozen different tribes in the area, and they are all unique in their own way with different languages, dress and customs. Among the poorest of these tribes are the Akha and consequently, they receive special attention from charity workers, anthropologists and missionary groups. They are known to the Thais by the somewhat derogatory name Egor and are usually considered worthless peasants at the bottom of the social scale.

Their origins can be traced back over a century to Tibet, before they migrated to Burma, Laos and Thailand, along with other hill tribes. Over the last two decades, they have been continually persecuted by the military regime in Burma, forcing them to flee and settle in Thailand as refugees. They remain stateless despite having been here so long, and are often exploited by corrupt officials and drug barons in the area.

The Akhas use a Lolo-Burmese language, although it has never been written down, making it difficult to trace its history accurately. Any known history has been passed on by mouth over the generations. Civil rights groups have recently created a system to document their language.

There are over 300,000 Akhas living in Thailand with the majority of the villages located in the province of Chiang Rai. They are usually subsistence farmers who grow vegetables and rice on the mountainsides, and raise pigs and chickens. The men often work in surrounding rice and tobacco fields, starting early in the morning and continuing until the last light. They receive about 100 baht per day, which is considerably less than the national minimum wage.

Their villages are often in remote locations and can be difficult to reach, meaning that the Akhas seldom leave their immediate area. Running water is still not available to all of the tribes so women are sometimes charged with the task of filling up large containers from a nearby well several times a day. A few villages have been fortunate enough to be electrified resulting in a marked improvement in living conditions. Entire families live in a simple houses constructed from bamboo and grass.

Missionary groups operating in the area have also increased problems of a religious nature. Their assistance is often dependant on certain conditions as they try to convert the Akhas to Christianity. Their methods are controversial, although the missionaries would say that they can help to improve their living conditions and future opportunities.

Questionable practices such as removing children from their family homes to give them a more civilised upbringing, has led to much criticism. The religion of the Akha people is closely tied to animism, with a strong focus on honouring ancestors and their parents, and a belief in both good and bad spirits. The presence of certain Christian groups has led to an erosion of their unique and fascinating culture.

The lack of ID cards has not stopped some of the women abandoning their villages in search of work in the big cities. Many end up working in prostitution or poorly paid massage parlours. Unfortunately, the young men often suffer a worse fate as they became smugglers for powerful drug barons. During the government crackdown on drugs in 2003, over 2,000 people were killed, many of them Akha.

The future for the Akha hilltribe is hard to predict as tourism continues to thrive in the area and the Thai authorities overlook them. Their unique culture is slowly fading away as the tour groups traipse through the villages and disturb their normal lives.