Most people know the Akha people from tourism brochures for Northern Thailand as they are one of the most colourful of all ethnic minorities with their extensively embroidered clothing and elaborate head dresses.
Many sources state that the ancestors of the Akha people moved down south from the Tibetan highlands and settled in what is now southwestern China around 2000 years ago, in the mountains along the Red river and Black river, just north of the border with Laos and Vietnam. According to their own extensive and very precise oral tradition, the Akha as a separate people came into being some 1500 years ago when they split off from the Yi people.
The Akha are excellent growers of wet rice and masters of turning steep mountain sides into fertile rice land. The famous rice terraces of the Akha (or Hani as they are called in China) in Yuan Yang county, Yunnan, have been studied by Chinese scholars over 700 years ago. Reverence for and cooperation with nature is ingrained into the Akha culture. Traditionally animists, the Akha have in their long history developed a unique set of rules and regulations called “Akhazangr”, which can best be translated as “traditions as handed down by the fathers”. These rules are not based on a divine principal but on the collective wisdom of more than 60 generations of Akha people, much of which is entwined with nature and the need to practice a sustainable form of agriculture to ensure self sufficiency. For instance, there are elaborate rules regarding the protection and maintenance of the forest near villages. Not only because they act as a source of game, medicine, wood, wild fruit and vegetables but also as a way to entrap the moisture from the mist which rises from the valleys below each day, even in dry season, and thus provide the Akha with a steady supply of water the year round. The veneration that Akha people bestow their ancestors, witnessed by every Akha being taught their lineage sometimes spanning more than 50 generations, and the regular recitation of texts which have been handed down orally through the ages at ceremonies, show the strong cultural identity that the Akha have maintained until this day.
In the past 150 years, due to war and conflict in China, Akha groups have started migrating further southwards, into Burma, Laos and Thailand. It is estimated that around 60,000 Akha people now live in Thailand, mainly in villages high up in the mountains of northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces.