The Ulo and Lomi
Akha came into Thailand from Myanmar, but the Pamee sub-group came from
Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China. On one
of my regular visits I met a relative of my host family who was staying in
Pamee a few months to make money in the litchi orchards. Yunnan was opening to tourists and he invited
me to come to his village in Xishuangbanna.
That provided my main excuse for going and I arranged a flight for the
summer of 1992.
After quite a
long hike, pausing for rain showers, we arrived at dusk and the boys turned to me. Who did I know here? Ajeu who worked in the litchi orchards in
Thailand. Someone took us to a house
belonging to an Ajeu fitting that description, but we didn’t recognize one
another. Turned out he worked in Pahee,
one of Pamee’s satellite villages. But
you’ve come a long way, he said, and must be hungry, so stay for dinner. In the course of the meal the word about us spread
through the village and before I could finish eating the other Ajeu, who’d
worked in Pamee, came to the house and afterwards took me to his home.
Most socializing with guests and neighbors takes place during an extended dinner. First meat and vegetable dishes fill the tables, along with rice spirits, which must be quaffed in the beginning and frequently afterwards throughout the meal. Cigarettes are also liberally distributed and the men even smoke while they eat. For a while they only take bits of meat and vegetables as they smoke, talk, drink, joke and laugh. It’s at least 40 minutes before the women serve the rice and soup. Even then the pace of eating only picks up slightly as the atmosphere continues to evoke a celebratory experience of eating and drinking in human company.
it was festival time more of the people, even males, dressed in traditional
clothing, though women tended to wear red and white checkered headscarves
instead of ornamented headdresses. Their
shoulder bags and the lower half of the vests and jackets were heavily embroidered
but with colors restricted to pink, red, white and magenta. The bags were also bigger than usual and the
skirts longer and bulkier. They wove and
dyed their own cloth and strips of indigo cloth were hanging on some of the
balconies, just like in winter in Thailand.
difference between the Akha in Thailand and the Aini in China was ideological
interference. In Thailand outsider
attempts to change the traditional Akha Way came from Christian missionaries
and Buddhist proselytizers. In China it
was periodic government campaigns against ‘superstition’ that undermined
tradition. Another casualty of this was
the absence of ancestral altars inside Aini houses, still very much part of
Akha life in Thailand. At least there
was never a campaign against embroidery designs and the survival of this
tradition was very evident in Pasha, especially among the older women, who still
wore traditional garments and were currently busy stitching in their free
time. The younger ones rarely wore them,
except for the shoulder bag, but all the babies had traditional caps, festooned
with beads, cowry shells and coins.
woman turned up heading back to her village and informed us an Akha village lay
3 km ahead and the nearest Lao border check post was several km further
on. We hiked to this village, called
Pakeu whose residents were the original inhabitants of Nankexing. They fled to Laos to avoid the political
campaigns of 1958. They had moved down
from the mountains a year ago, closer to their sugarcane fields, so their
houses were a bit ramshackle, yet the interiors were in the same traditional
style as in Thailand. The men’s side and
women’s side had separate hearths and a wall divided them. The ancestral basket was stored in the far
corner of the women’s side beside the dividing wall. Water was carried and stored in bamboo tubes.
We returned to the headman’s house fairly late and a little drunk, but there was one more old-fashioned traditional experience coming up to enjoy—opium. Behind the partition wall on the female side an older woman was lying on her side smoking her pipes. She soon finished and turned over her place to a young man who proceeded to prepare a couple pipes for himself to smoke and then several each for both of us. My friend had never smoked before but this was something still common at that time in northern Thailand, where until recently many Akha villages cultivated the plant. At the end of the session our host only asked payment for what the Chinese smoked. Mine was complimentary because I spoke their language. Now I had a final anecdote to relate when I returned to Thailand’s Akha villages.
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