Visiting indigenous villages brings with it an interesting and sometime surprising experience. Visiting Akha was one of those strange experiences. Had we not been with a guide, it would have been beyond bizarre.
We drove for quite some time on paved roads into the hills of northern Thailand to meet our local guide. Then we transferred into an all-terrain vehicle where we proceeded to go off roading. About a half an hour on roads only accessible with four wheel drive, crossing streams beds where the bridge had fallen in, we began a decent down a road into the Akha village. It was the end of the road. As our vehicles approached, we observed an elevated stand with a PA speaker announcing our arrival.
As we exit our vehicles with cameras in hand, ready to stretch our legs, villagers begin to pour out of their huts. Our local guide begins a discussion with a man who appears to be the chief. The first thing I notice is two elder women dressed in some very tribal headgear and colorful clothes looking at me and laughing between themselves. Apparently, we are as much a spectacle for the villagers as they are to us. Everyone seemed friendly so, I chose to do a little exploring while our local guide had his discussion with the chief.
Getting Ready for a Photo Op
It was a hot day with few clouds. The sun was high creating high contrast light – not very conducive to great photography. I looked everywhere and there was nothing to use as a backdrop. It was like trying to photograph people in a junk yard. Pieces of old car parts, scrap metal, old wood planks, etc. piled up everywhere. I knew the only way to get a half way decent shot was to use a telephoto and to get close enough to my subject to blur the background. So I sat down in the shade of a small pavilion across from the two older women. I played with my camera settings until they lost interest in what I was doing. Slowly I raised my camera for a test shot and there was no objection, so I continued to make a few shots. Eventually, our guide came over and told us to follow him.
Strange and Curious People
[gm album=40] As I walked through the village, I realized one of the elderly women I had photographed was following me. Not just walking behind me but shadowing me. She walked a bit closer than I felt was comfortable. When I stopped she stopped. When I turned around and looked at her, she stopped and smiled. I thought how strange, “why is she so interested in me?” This tiny woman was 4’6″ tall at best. She looked like she could be 80+ years old. She walked behind me like the shadow of a leprechaun, as if she knew something awaited ahead and wanted to see my reaction as I discovered it. Eventually, I figured it out. She was one of the villagers our guide engaged to be photographed in the tea fields.
Its all on the Head
The head piece the women wear is made from heavy metal balls woven into their hair. I’m guessing the balls serve as a counterweight to the tea leaves in the baskets they carry behind their head. There is a rigid metal flap at the back of the head piece which holds the basket of harvested tea leaves. Evidentially, the women rarely remove these head pieces. One of our group asked if they could take off the headgear for some different photos. It was explained that it would take hours to remove it.
As the Akha people worked to harvest tea leaves, I spent most of the afternoon waiting for the occasional cloud to pass over and soften the light for a good shot. We were rewarded late afternoon with a beautiful sunset. I hope you enjoy my pictures of the Akha tribe of Chiang Rai,Thailand.