Report from Tomorrow - Vol 25
1USD = S$1.77 (S$1 = 0.56USD)
Originating in southern China, the Akha have been involved in opium trading for hundreds of years. They are a very short people who still retain their traditional dress. Over the years they slowly migrated from China into Laos, Burma and northern Thailand. Totaling about 24,000 or so in Thailand, they are basically a nomadic people who have raised poppies in the mountain hills for as long as anyone can remember - and fought the Thai.
After defeating the Akha (I presume), the Thai government has been trying to redirect them from their traditional lifestyle to a more acceptable one. About 50 years ago the government established the village we visited and has been giving the Akha special help by providing electricity and better roads to the area. A school was built nearby also and the government has encouraged tourists to visit the area. All this in an effort to motivate the Akha to improve their condition.
The Akha have not responded well. They are, indeed, dirty. Living in filthy traditional straw huts, their village made us very uneasy. Pigs and snarling dogs had free roam. Small children ran among the tourists begging for money. Our guide pointed out that the kids should be in school, but "the Akha don't want their kids to go".
The adults chew beetlenut which stains their mouth and teeth terribly, detracting from their image. Their clothes were dirty, worn and torn. They do not make any crafts, but rather buy from the locals and sell them to tourists. They are clearly the most aggressive sales people in Thailand, pestering the tourists to buy their wares. If you take their picture they will ask for money (10 baht) and, we were warned, "if you do not pay, they will push you".
Our guide described them as "lazy", unwilling to work in general and reluctant to work the rice fields the Thai government has given them - not the sort of neighbors anyone would like anywhere. The local Thai people have as little to do with them as possible.
The YaoIt is believed the Yao come from the same original ethnic group in southern China as the Akha. After leaving that area, they established their own ways and are now distinct from the Akha - in so many ways. The Yao, too, grew poppies have been opium smugglers and have migrated in the same areas. Today they number something like 32,000 people in Thailand. The Yao also fought the Thai.
The Yao village is at most a kilometer away, but it could be 1000 km for the change. The Yao village is a little older than the Akha and the Thai government has provided the same support (roads, electricity, schools). The Yao and Akha, despite their common past and vicinity, do not have anything to do with each other.
All but the smallest children were gone to school. This being the off season, most of the stalls to sell their crafts (mostly needle or bead work) were empty as most of the village was in the nearby rice fields. The village consisted mostly of wood stilt houses, the traditional Thai house.
Some Yao women were selling crafts in stalls which lined the paved street. All wore their traditional clothes (clean and looking nice). The first woman we met beamed a wide smile in greeting, showing us her gold teeth. It made me glad the Akha woman we met did not have the same wide smile!
The Yao were clearly the more pleasant and prosperous people, but they weren't above a little price inflation for the tourists. We bought some things there (at no great cost at any rate). Later at the airport, Mary found the same things for slightly less - that nice old lady, gouged her!