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I’m not sure why sometimes it takes me so long to write about certain places I have been to.
Over a year ago I visited Baan Huay Kee Lek, an ethnic Akha village perched on the top of a mountain in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand. I knew as soon as we drove up the dusty and windy dirt track to the village we were in for a treat.
Isolated, authentic and free from groups of tourists (except for our small group of writers).
Visiting hill tribe people in Thailand is a popular experience for travellers and many of the hill tribe villages are said to be losing their identity to the tourism industry.
We were the first tourists to visit Huay Kee Lek. The villagers had only recently decided to welcome in the gawkers and in an effort to not lose themselves to them created a counsel to manage it as a community based tourism project.
This is tourism that aims to show the visitor the local traditions, values and lifestyle whilst conserving the value of the individual culture and environment. Visitors can stay overnight or join the rural people in their daily lives in an effort to increase understanding and respect for each other.
This form of tourism allows the villagers to maintain their traditional skills, control the tourism income, pursue their normal life and preserve their cultural and natural heritage.
The details of my time here are quite sketchy. It was in the middle of a trip where I experienced so many amazing things. Of course, I had my notebook, where I recorded the intricate details including that of my observations and thoughts.
My notebook is what helps me recall most stories that I tell. Every now and then disaster strikes and no matter how many lounge cushions you upend and desk drawers you empty out, you just can’t find the notebook that helps tell the story!
Lucky for me, a few major things stick out in my mind still and I have some incredible photos to share.
Despite the authenticity of village life in Huay Kee Lek, many Akha villagers ride motorbikes into Chiang Rai during the day to work in factories, government positions and private businesses. They wear suits or normal clothes. The traditional garments you see are reserved for special occasions, special visitors or for those who continue living in the traditional manner.
Village life still continues in much the same way as it has for years, except modern life is creeping in slowly. And this is fine, evolution happens everywhere.
We saw the mix of old and new with women weaving grass and drying beans in the sun, taxi drivers lazing about on bamboo platforms and young soldiers standing around in groups laughing and chatting.
Pigs and roosters ran round our feet and children played in the dirt in their backyards or under their homes built on wooden stilts.
Our guide, in his broken English and with help from our Go Green Thailand guide told us about village life. He took us to see the sacred village Akha swing, used for special celebrations.
Late August every year, at the peak of the rainy season, the colourful Akha people celebrate a four day festival in their villages. It marks the end of the planting of the village rice and is in celebration of all their hard work and the lushness of the earth around them. It’s a joyful time as they show respect and gratitude to their ancestors who bless them with abundance.
It’s also marks the rite of passage for Akha girls passing into womanhood, who dress in the colourful traditional dress of the Akha people and let their hair down swinging wildly through the air on the rickety swing.
The counsel leader and his wife, the village herbal doctor, took us for a short walk in the surrounding forest to get a deeper insight into the self-sufficient village life.
We walked under what looked to be a haphazardly constructed gated entrance to the village, with simplistic grass woven circular designs. We discovered that it was a Spirit Gate designed to keep bad spirits at bay.
Attaching a ‘spirit eye’ to trees indicates that they must not be cut.
On our walk tragedy struck when one of our group fell down the mountain and scraped his arm. Our medicine doctor disappeared into the forest and returned soon with a variety of leaf specimens and a larger leaf to act as a petrie dish.
She began rolling and grinding until it formed a paste. Then she gently applied it to his abrasion. It stayed on until we left. It didn’t heal it magically then and there, but it helped relieve his pain and no infection visited for the remainder of our trip. He was very happy with the remedy. I was very happy watching the herbal doctor at work.
After our meal we were invited into the home of a sweet married couple. They prepared a simple meal with food grown in the gardens and village animals, which we ate together on the floor of their living room. Their wooden home was bare, but filled with warmth and happiness.
They could not speak English, but their smiles and kind deeds said so much.
(I was also really happy to see their 4 year old son throw a tantrum–it happens everywhere, we are not alone!!)
Located in Chiang Rai province, in the Wawi sub-district, approximately 25 km’s from the district center of Mae Souay.
Go Green Thailand offer tours to the village. Visit their website here:
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My visit to the Huay Kee Lek Akha village was part of my Friendship to Friend tour with Tourism Thailand.
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