Well, it turns out I didn’t go to Akha Hill House, after all…which is a good thing, since I’ve since been told that it’s a notorious drug hangout. I freely confess to a vivid curiosity about opium growth/production, but since I’m not even slightly interested in trying the stuff, I’m just as happy to skip dealing with all the folks who are.
Instead, I wound up at DAPA, which is an Akha assistance program that offers tours to Akha villages. My curiosity was piqued by the idea of a *nonprofit* organization offering village tours, plus I figured they’d have greater expertise (and cultural sensitivity) than an outside organization. This turned out to be entirely accurate…this was the best hilltribe visit I’ve had so far.
The Akha are one of several hilltribes inhabiting northern Thailand. (The others are the Karen, who are fighting a war for independence in Burma, the Northern Tai, the Mien, and–aargh, I can’t remember the other ones.) Most of the hilltribes are displaced peoples, fleeing the Karen-Burmese war, but some also come from China. The Burmese-Thai border is so long and so porous that Thailand can’t keep them out, but of course Thailand isn’t enthused about having a lot of illegal immigrants either, and doesn’t want to encourage them.
So, most of the hilltribe peoples don’t have Thai citizenship (they’re not citizens of any other nation, either–really and truly dispossessed). This means they can’t own land, go to school, get bank loans, hold legal employment, etc.. They’re basically nonpersons–they’re not even included in the census.
Since their traditional farming method (slash-and-burn agriculture) has been outlawed for environmental reasons, this makes maintaining their traditional culture very difficult indeed. The net result is a very high death rate, illiteracy rate, and a great deal of prostitution–there’s no legal way to get work, so many girls and women wind up in the sex trade. This, of course, leads to a high rate of HIV infection.
(One of the things that has become very clear in traveling around Asia is that HIV/AIDS in Asia is inextricably tied to poverty; you just can’t tell a Cambodian sex worker to stop selling sex and get a “decent” job, because there frankly may not be one. The U.S. is quite unusual in having nearly full employment–by which I mean that it’s unusual for someone looking for full-time, paid employment not to be able to find it somewhere–but I don’t think that’s true in most of the countries I’ve been traveling through. It’s also very clear that subordinate status of women is similarly linked to HIV spread in Asia; women simply have not got the leverage to say no to a man who doesn’t want to use a condom, and the general good-girl/bad-girl double standard prevents women from acting to protect themselves. (The director of an AIDS prevention program, for example, told me that a woman caught carrying a condom is presumed by the police to be a prostitute.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes…the Akha. Basically, with all the things stacked against them, the Akha are roughly in the same position as Native Americans in the U.S., except that they don’t even have reservations. So many of the same cultural issues are happening: the young are flocking to the cities and not coming back, schools are trying to eradicate their cultural identity (if they can get into school at all, they are heavily pressured to take Thai names, etc.), and their tribal crafts/traditions are largely dying out. I was told by the director of the hilltribe museum, for example, that some of the tribes are converting to Christianity because their spiritual leaders have died and there is no one to replace them…I was introduced to their sole remaining silversmith, and one of the few old women who still know how to spin and weave. By and large, these crafts are dying out because all the practitioners are old, and no young people are learning.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that they have not yet lost the crafts, nor their cultural identity…the older women still wear the Akha costume, which consists of an elaborate headdress with many additional decorations, plus a black wrap jacket. The headdresses are quite spectacular–the silversmith I watched said that the average headdress contains 2 kg of silver (!), 40 coins in the back piece, 5 coins in a decorative piece, and much more in the various dangly bits. The headdress itself consists of a silver back piece, and a close-fitting cap covered in small silver hemispheres. Old Indian, Burmese, or Chinese coins (solid silver) are attached as well, as are silver spheres hammered from 3-4 coins each, and large flat triangular shapes. That’s it for the silver, but then they attach strings of bright-colored beads, pompoms, cock-feather leis, horsehair tassels, etc. (LOTS of etc.). It’s really impressive looking and quite elaborate headgear.
They also wear a lot of embroidery on the jacket–mostly couched-thread work in geometric patterns, but also various satin-stitch patterns (also geometric). Recently they have imported the Mien cross-stitch patterns into their work, so older patterns are geometrics, newer ones tend to be diagonal cross-stitch. It’s all exquisite, including the equally-elaborate leggings.
Here’s a fairly nice set of photos: http://members.tripod.com/~tudtu/hillsty1.htm
Anyway, I negotiated with DAPA for a one-day trip focusing on spinning, weaving, and embroidery (woo!), with a side trip to see their silversmith. So we all piled into a four-wheel drive truck (Tiger brand!) and headed out to the villages…first we stopped by two weaving areas with fairly typical Thai-Lao weaving setups, and then headed out for the silversmith’s.
The road to the silversmith’s village was seriously scary. It had rained that morning–which is very unusual, in the dry season–so of course everythign was wet. Not a big deal, on a paved road. On a dirt road in the Thai foothills, very big deal. Imagine a steep hill in San Francisco (which I personally find nervewracking, even paved and dry). Now, replace the nice paved road with a winding, heavily rutted dirt track the exact width of the car. Wet, so the entire road is slippery clay mud. Now, imagine that your four-wheel drive vehicle is slipping, fishtailing, and grinding its way *up* that hill, with a dropoff on one side. It’s the sort of situation that’s heavily conducive to prayer, believe me. I was wishing fervently I were Christian and Catholic just so I could say a Hail Mary. Some situations just call for a Hail Mary, regardless of religious affiliation.
However, we did eventually make it, and stopped at the silversmith.
That was really neat. There is only one Akha silversmith left in Thailand, and I was watching him. (Well, actually, there are two; but they work in the same shop, and I think they’re brothers.) He works with a primitive forge (small charcoal fire with attached bellows), hammer, and a few shaping tools to produce the elaborate Akha headdresses…I sat and watched, completely fascinated, as he heated, hammered, reheated, rehammered, etc. seven coins’ worth of silver into a perfect flat, thin trapezoid to make up the back piece of the headdress. His brother (?) was sitting at a table nearby, delicately hammering elaborate patterns into another piece of the headdress.
I should mention the coins. Akha headdresses are traditionally made from pure silver, and the main source of the silver is old Indian, Chinese, and Burmese coins. (I bought four silver Indian rupees from him; they were dated 1906 to 1919, and had King Edward and King George V on them.) So silver weight is referred to in “coins”, with such and such a piece being “20 coins” or “thirty coins” depending on weight. I got him to weigh some coins, and got a weight estimate–about 12.5 grams. It doesn’t always mean melted coins, though–they also use silver ingots, and whatever else they buy from the gold shop.
I “rescued” an exquisite silver bracelet from the silversmith, in fact–he was going to melt it down for the silver. It’s solid silver, almost 7 ounces, and is beautifully chunky with carved line designs–I’ll try to take a photo. I can’t wear it (too small), but it’s such a pretty piece, I just couldn’t let it be destroyed.
Anyway, we sat for three or four hours watching him weld loops onto the backs of old silver coins, hammer out the flat piece, and demonstrate making silver spheres. First he takes a piece of silver, and hammers it into a flat disk. Then he heats the disk (to anneal and soften the silver), puts it into a spherical form, and slowly shapes it into a hemisphere. (They showed me the wooden form that they used to use–hemispheres carved into a chunk of log–and the buffalo horn that they’re using now. Buffalo horn is better–finer-grained and harder. They saw the horn in half, and carve perfect hemispheres into it with a red-hot iron.)
The whole process takes a long time and requires much skill–just hammering a lump of metal into a perfectly flat, even sheet takes a lot of experience! It was absolutely fascinating to watch.
From there we went to the Akha village, which is a fairly typical set of thatched bamboo houses (I hate to call anything that well-made a “hut”). There I met the spinner/weaver, who’s a 61-year-old woman who absolutely loves her work–she showed me an endless succession of beautifully embroidered bags, jackets, etc., and also demoed spinning on the Akha spindle, which is a mid-whorl drop spindle twirled down the thigh. Her hands were beautiful to watch–the spindle practically jumped about on its own–and she showed me how to prepare the cotton, too.
She takes plain ginned cotton and puts it in a pile on the floor, then starts twanging a small wooden “bow” so the string catches the cotton bits. As she continues plucking the bow, the vibrating string catches the fibers, separates them, and sends the bits floating into the air–after ten or fifteen minutes this produces a homogenous fluffy mass of loose fiber.
(This is, incidentally, much harder than it looks; she let me try it, and my first attempt was, um, disastrous. Also very funny, although she valiantly tried not to laugh, and patted me encouragingly on the back.)
She then picks out short bits of fiber and bits of hull, takes a small handful of the finished fluff, and puts it on a wooden board. She then takes a slender piece of bamboo and rolls the cotton fluff around it, producing a nice little cotton puni, ready for spinning.
(It is not true, by the way, that you have to spin cotton finely. She was spinning cotton singles on the drop spindle that were the diameter of cheap cotton string.)
Anyway, she also showed me her indigo dyepot and indigo dyeplants–two species, both different from the European standard *and* from the Lao plant. One of the species smells very nice when dried–she showed me a sprig she had hanging up as air freshener. We didn’t have time for her to demonstrate dyeing, alas, but I did buy some lovely indigo black fabric from her–handwoven and handspun, of course–and some lovely soft white cotton fabric. I think I’ll use it for embroidery.
We ate dinner in the standard Akha style–sitting at a low table, dipping food out of common bowls into our bowls of rice, and dipping bits of green stuff (mint, and some sort of spongy stem that they said was from a plant like taro (but not taro)) into bowls of spicy chili paste. Unlike the Lao, the Akha eat “regular” rice with chopsticks. (The Lao eat sticky rice kneaded into balls with the fingers and then dipped into chili or fermented fish paste, or pinched up with a bit of some other dish.)
Akha food is heavily spiced (LOTS of chilis), and vegetable-dominated. Dinner and breakfast were very similar–fried eggs, instant noodles, chicken soup with bitter melon/bamboo shoots, chili paste (hand-pounded in a mortar!), and a spicy fish dish. To be honest, I didn’t really like the food much, but fortunately I had a nasty cold so I really couldn’t taste much of anything.
With every meal, there was tea and the inevitable firewater–rice whisky seems endemic throughout Laos and northern Thailand. This stuff was truly awful, though–sort of what you’d get if you took firewater and aged it in green bamboo. (Oddly enough, I suspect that’s exactly what happened. 😉 ) Fortunately, Akha hospitality isn’t quite as insistent as Lao hospitality, meaning that while the whisky does come out as soon as you sit down (whisky with breakfast??? yep!), it doesn’t get refilled quite as often. This means you have *some* hope of getting through the meal without getting totally sloshed.
As we were eating, I saw the dog sticking its head into the cooking wok and happily licking out the leftovers, and the cat sticking its nose into one of the mixing bowls and doing the same. Well, different people have different standards for cleanliness; fortunately, the stuff all gets sterilized anyway durign cooking. I hope.
(Besides, there’s no point in bringing along all that medication for food poisoning if you aren’t going to use it: see, there *is* an upside…!)
Anyway, it turned out to be a fascinating trip, and they offered to have the silversmith teach me! and the weaver…she had disassembled loom bits freshly carved out of bamboo (the bamboo was still green…that’s how fresh it was 🙂 ) sitting outside her house, and will show me how to construct a bamboo loom! starting with digging the posts into the ground…so I’m spending the next week or so in that Akha village, if I can schedule it around straightening out my Indian visa. I have changed my Air India tickets to Feb 20/March 18, so I’ll be passing throuh Bangkok around Feb 15-16, best guess. then, on to delhi, India, and the Tibetan cave yogis.
I forgot to mention that there were a pair of beautiful white/brown sparrows nesting in the bamboo house, perching on two grass-blades sticking out from the thatching. It was beautiful to watch them hover. Apparently, they’re a good-luck symbol; it’s unlucky for a house to be without them.
anyway, that’s the news from here…sorry if today’s update isn’t quite up to scratch, I’m suffering from a very bad cold and my brain is pretty much shut down, which makes writing difficult. One of my big tasks for today is to go off in search of cold medication–I’m out of it right now, so I’m living on cough drops.
(Parenthetical note: if you ever travel to Asia, take LOTS of cold medication. This is the single item that I really regret not stocking–the “hard to get” antibiotics like Cipro turn out to be readily available OTC–even in Laos–but cough medicine without antihistamines, codeine, or tincture of opium (I kid you not: tincture of opium) is very hard to come by. And I guarantee you will get a LOT more colds than obscure tropical diseases…)
sniffling off to the pharmacy, then back to DAPA to negotiate silversmithing/weaving lesson prices… 🙂
P.S. Did I mention that the villagers are also in the process of rebuilding a house?!? THey had piles of bamboo stacked in front of one of the houses, which is aparently nine years old…so I might get to help build a bamboo hut! complete with thatching! Is that cool, or what???
Have enjoyed reading your blog, especially about the Akha. I grow and spin a lot of cotton, and I am interested in the cotton bowing process, but I can’t find much information. My attempts to make a bow with a wooden dowel and guitar string have not been successful. Do you know how they make the bows, or how they sound when they bow the cotton. I’d love to hear about you experience in detail.
Tien Chiu says
If I recall correctly it was just a notched stick with some cotton string – I’m guessing the stick was bamboo, but not 100% sure. The cotton kept trying to wrap itself around the string, it took quite a bit of practice to get it to stop (trial and error finally got me there). I’m guessing that the wooden dowel may not be flexible/springy enough, ditto the guitar string. I’d suggest trying bamboo and a reasonably strong cotton thread.
Hope that helps!
Thanks for the reply, but I’m still confounded. I think these people have some magic up their sleeves. I’ve found some other photos of a Chinese cotton bow here if your interested: This one’s HUGE! They say that the bow makes a very distinctive sound. What’s that sound? LOL
Tien Chiu says
I don’t really remember what the bow sounded like (it’s been ten years). I seem to remember it sounded like twanging, but since all bows do that, that probably doesn’t help you any. I’d experiment with different materials and see if you can get it to work. I really don’t think it’s rocket science. What problems are you having?
Ten years is kinda a long time ago.
Well, I’ve tried cotton, linen, & wire; all on a piece of oak dowel bent into a bow shape. The cotton doesn’t really do anything, or it fluffs a bit, but not without considerable work. It seems the folks in India (a clip on a video I saw) make it look very easy. The words is out and my guild prez is looking for folks who have been to India. Maybe…
Tien Chiu says
Are you twanging the bow through the cotton? You do have to fluff it up some beforehand, and it does take quite a bit of time to get the cotton to fluff up – that might qualify as “considerable work” to you? Even when Ahta (the woman who taught me) was doing it, it was definitely slower than, say, a pair of cotton carders.
So maybe it is more time consuming than cotton carders. I worked at it for about an hour or more, but didn’t get any decent results. I thought it may give better results than carders (which I have). The mystery deepens…