The Akha are one of the smallest, poorest, and least developed hill tribe groups in Southeast Asia, but they are also among the best known to tourists. Akha women are famous for their beautiful, elaborate, and distinctive traditional costumes.
The Akha are known as the Hani in China. In China, the Hani have traditionally been a highland tribe dominated by the lowland Dais. The Akha hill tribe originated in Yunnan in Southern China.
Yunnan still has the highest Akha population. Over several centuries many Akha has been migrating southward from their original home. In the middle of the 19th century, significant numbers were moving into Shan State in Burma. Others made their way into Laos. Most of the Akha in Thailand came from Burma.
The first Akha hill tribe village in Thailand was probably established in 1903 in the Phaya Phrai area on the Burmese border. Phaya Phrai is in Mae Fah Luang District, Chiang Rai. However, they still practice some of their traditions. Their society lacks a strict system of social class and is considered egalitarian.
The Akha believe that all things on earth have souls They offer sacrifices to mountains, rivers, dragons, and heaven, and, as often as every week, to their ancestors. Animals have spirits that are honored in hunting rites.
The Akha revere a female creator god named Ao ma, or “Heavenly Spirit” who created the sky and the earth and then gave the Akha their social code but rarely honor her with formal rituals.
The Rice Mother is more often the object of formal worship. They also worship “holy hills” as guardian spirits. Akha people believe in ancestors’ spirits that guide humans and they believe that spirits dominate every resource. The Akha tribe also believes that everything, from the sky, forest, and land, has a spirit.
“Source: Alberto C. de la Paz, curator of the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center at Chiang Rai. The Akha believe in a period, which is similar to the Christian idea of the Garden of Eden.
The Akha believed that only animals like dogs and pigs give birth to more than one offspring and therefore considered twins as beasts and not human and must be immediately killed. Traditionally, when this happened the children were burned, the parents were run out of town and their house and all their possessions were set on fire.
If the parents were wealthy they could buy their way back into the village by hosting nine’days of feasting and sacrificial rites. Even then everyone in the village would ignore them for a year and they would be permanently excluded from religious rites.
The Akha hill tribe people generally live in bamboo houses raised on low wooden stilts in hilly areas. These huts are divided by gender. One side is for women.
The other side, occupied by the men, is used as a more public area. Especially in remote areas in Mae Fah Luang district in Chiang Rai province, you will still find original Akha houses. They are harder and harder to find though.