by Jim Goodman
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.
to the scene and began conversing. They celebrated other festivals like in Thailand and had the full range of traditional authorities: the headman who mainly handles outside affairs, the dzoema who is the authority and ultimate arbiter on cultural matters, the pima who is the spiritual specialist and memorizes the oral traditions and history, the blacksmith who is also chief architect and oversees house construction, and the shamans, to whom people go when medicine does not ease their afflictions.
Perhaps because 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.
One big 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.
Fortunately a 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.
* * *