The Akha Experience
Immerse yourself in local culture
This program takes you on a journey to a remote Akha community. Lose yourself in nature and appreciate the value of tradition on this culture immersion tour.
About the village
Situated on the slopes of cloud-tipped mountains, Honglerk village is an Akha community in the northern region of Muang Khua. Banana trees, bamboo forests and tree-lined hills surround Honglerk, and the expansive view of the landscape below is unforgettable. Unlike other Akha communities that have relocated from the mountains to the lowlands, Honglerk is isolated from roads and markets. Only 45 families live in Honglerk, and it is easy to unwind and reflect without the noise of motorbikes and traffic.
Villagers work in their rice and vegetable fields to provide for their families. On your hike into the village from the main road, you’ll pass by women carrying heavy loads of produce to sell at markets in town.
Numerous subgroups make up the Akha ethnic group, and the villagers of Honglerk are descendents of the Akha Pala subgroup. Their cultural identity is most visible by the clothing worn by women. While men typically wear contemporary clothing, women dress in traditional attire, such as a headdress with a distinctive cone-shaped base that is made out of cloth and placed high on the head.
Community-based tourism in action
One of the first Fair Trek initiatives, the Akha Experience program is a cooperation between Fair Trek, the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the Phongsali Alternative Development Fund and the Lao government. The initiative was established in 2009 to generate alternative income to former opium-growing communities.
Fair Trek and partners worked with the villagers to set up homestays and a village fund earmarked for community needs that is collected from tourists visiting Honglerk. This supplemental income stream is helping local residents improve their livelihoods.
You’ll have local encounters at every turn on this experiential adventure. From riding in a public bus with locals to living with a host family, it’s sure to be as much an adventurous as educational journey.
For a truly experiential and memorable experience, get to know the villagers during your stay. You might speak different languages but you can still communicate through the power of human connection. Here are a few ways to interact with your hosts:
- Ask your hosts to tell you the story about how their ancestors settled in Laos from China.
- Ask your host if you can help cook a traditional meal.
- Learn how to say a few words in Akha Pala language.
The Akha ethnic group originated in China and Tibet, and over the last two centuries, migrated to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. They are one of the most diverse ethnic groups, consisting of countless subgroups that vary according to geography, dress, or genealogical names. Because women continue to wear traditional clothing, differences in a woman’s headdress, the embroidery on her shirt or the vivid colours used for trimming on her clothes identify her family and ethnicity.
Akha people believe in a combination of animism and ancestral worship and live according to the guidelines of the Akha zang, or Akha way of life. They have a preoccupation with the dangers posed by unseen forces that they call neh. These forces may be friendly or malevolent. Some women tie amulets on the end of their headdresses in order to ward off these bad spirits. While anyone can appeal to the benevolent spirits for protection and blessings, the havoc caused by evil ones has to be dealt with by the village shaman.
Many distinguishable parts of an Akha village are related to this strong belief in the spirit world. The wooden gate, with its hand-carved figures attached, marks the entrance to each village. Every year, the village builds a new gate and holds a large ceremony that includes the sacrifice of a pig. This gate acts as a boundary between the human world and spiritual realm, creating a safe haven for the village. As these spirit gates are never torn down, you can tell how old an Akha village is by counting the number of gates.
The swing is another iconic spiritual symbol of the village. A tall bamboo swing is built in the highest part of the village around August, during an annual festival honoring their ancestors that lasts for four days. Similar to the wooden gates, people can only touch or to use the swing during this festival.
The Akha language is a member of the Tibeto-Burman family. Without a written language, the Akha have cultivated a rich oral literature passed down from generation to generation.
Their language and folktales reflect their relationship with nature, society and their community. This oral literature provides a window into Akha history, ceremonial life, music, ecology and law. One popular folktale describes why a written language never materialized. Other tales, like the Story of Two Brothers, are long pieces of oral literature embedded with cultural and mythological symbols.