Laos is amazingly beautiful, serene and a relatively untouched destination. I was there in Oct 2016 for 2 weeks. Tourists often prefer its more well-known neighbors like Vietnam and Thailand. Make no mistake this gem has absolutely everything that its neighbors can offer and more. The biggest pull for me though is ethic or cultural tourism. It has hundreds of ethnic groups and some of the tribes in the hilly areas follow the age-old customs, costumes, festivities and cultural practices that they have been following for hundreds of years. The major reason for this authenticity of the tribes is because mass tourism has not impacted them. I had the fortune of meeting up close with one such tribe called the Akha tribe during a 2-day trek through the jungles of Laos in Nam Ha National Protected Area in Luang Namtha province.We were a 6-people group that trekked through the dense jungle with 2 local guides to support us.
On a grade of 1-10 (10 being toughest) – I would rate the trek as an ‘8’.There are more than a few steep slopes and climbs that would challenge some seasoned hikers. Where ever there were water-bodies, there were leeches eager to get attached to you. Being tropical rain forest, the soil was wet in quite a lot of areas during the trek, which meant that path could be slippery. But the beauty of the terrain and diversity of the fauna was un-matchable with sunlight shining through the dense trees , water falls at various intervals– it was miraculous. The guides showed us trees that are used to make the famed tiger balm, tropical trees that produced exotic fruits, high eucalyptus trees. We had our hard-earned lunch in the jungle on banana leaves and washes our hands in natural streams.
But the absolute cherry on the cake was meeting with Akha tribal villagers at the end of the 6-hour trek the first day.
The Akha are an indigenous hill tribe who live in small villages at higher elevations in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Yunnan Province in China. Their ancestors are said to be originated in China. They made their way from China into Southeast Asia during the early 20th century. Here are some of the customs I came across during my stay in the village. Some of them amazing, some of them weird, some of them plain unbelievable and even borderline dangerous:
- They have a spirit gate at the entrance of every Akha village. It marks the division between the inside of the village, the domain of man and domesticated animals, and the outside, the realm of spirits and wildlife. The gates function to ward off evil spirits and to entice favorable ones. We were told not to touch them or even pass through them as it would reduce their efficacy.
2. Another important feature found in most Akha villages is a tall four-posted village swing which is used in an annual ancestor offering related to the fertility of rice. The swing is built annually by an elder called adzoeuh mah.
3. Houses are segregated by gender, with specific areas for men and women as well as a common space.
4. Lactating mothers prefer to remain topless because they feel covering their breasts would render the milk undrinkable due to evil spirit.
5. Villagers, a lot of times don’t allow their pictures to be taken because they feel the cameras would cage their spirits and would never get free.
6. Now the strangest one. This will blow your mind off : Once the girl or boy in the family becomes a teenager, the father builds them a small cabin house beside their main house. Now my guide called it the boom-boom hut – what in the god’s name is that you ask?… Wild guess? … I am sure you got it right … A teenager is meant to have sex with her courters or boyfriend/girlfriend in this house. Can you believe it – A village is so open and liberal about sex! Teenagers have the freedom to choose their partners and need to seek approval only for marriage. My guide even claimed that boys have to impress the girls with their sexual prowess to be eligible to ask their hand.
I researched on this last custom and found more about why it exists. here is what I found:
- Akhas believe that pre-pubertal sex acts enable the maturing of bodies into adulthood. It’s called a thonh thong (‘break through vagina’ [BV]) for girls and yaha heu (‘open foreskin’ [OF]) for boys.
- They also believe in the practice of a thor ta yang (‘Welcome Guest’) in which sexually initiated girls have sex with male visitors to Akha villages (In most probability an Akha community member from another village).
Now at this point you must be wondering like me when I first learnt about this – that surely can’t go on!!! And you are right, it is having a bad effect on the tribe. Since this culture provides minimal social constraints on multi partner sexuality, men and women are at increasing risk of STIs, including HIV. The risks have even increased now because Akha people move frequently between villages and the urban areas in search for work, and vice versa because of an influx of non-Akhas into the villages. There is a level of urgency to raise Akha’s awareness on the risks of these customs. The solution I can think of is inclusive planning with Akha villagers of future public health strategies that do not violate their cultural practices and dignity but at the same time help them resist potential exploitation and threats to their health. Such strategies must include sexual education programs and encouraging the delay of BV and OF. And the ‘Welcome guest’ custom – I think there needs to be education that it’s a blatant violation of human rights. Other areas that can be looked at is appointing local community health workers, mobile clinics visiting regularly and offering STI tests, condom distribution etc. Else this tribe could be wiped off in years to come.
What all this means for you, if you are travelling to Laos and visiting a local tribe?
Be respectful of these customs. These beliefs are ingrained in them. Don’t try to take any undue advantage of them as it could be quite dangerous for them and even for you as they don’t prefer non-Akhas participating in their customs. And always hire a local guide who speaks their language and understands their customs. If you want to take a photo of somebody for example in the village – seek their permission through your local guide. And if they say no – please respectfully walk away.