We Were the First Western Group to Meet an Akha Hill Tribe Village

Twenty minutes from the Den Chai Mulberry Farm is a village of Akha people, an indigenous hill tribe in northern Thailand. Alek and Mike, who run the farm, told us that they donate clothes, toys and school supplies monthly to the kids there, though Mike had never personally visited them before.

In fact, aside from a Scottish missionary who comes by occasionally, they may not have seen any Westerners at all before.

But we didn’t know this before we went. In my mind, I was thinking about the Pwo Karen hill tribe we’d visited earlier, and wondered how these people differed in their culture and lifestyle.

So we helped Alek prepare their gifts and donations. They told us there would be 10 children at the village today, so Alek gave us some pencils, crayons and colouring books to put in one bag. Then Mike came over with an exceptionally large bag of soccer balls. All of these where brand new, and we were aiming to get some ear-to-ear grins out of these kids faces.

We hopped in the truck with all our supplies and headed out to the village. Alek told us the Akha people have gotten wind of our visit and are prepared to show us their festive tribal gear that they usually only wear on special occasions, like the turn of a new year. I had no idea what to expect.

akha den chai

One of several matriarchs of the village. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

We finally arrived at their little village, which consisted of about five various-sized bamboo huts. We had a local guide who was eager to tell us all about these people and their community. Alek translated for us, informing us that this man (who’s name we never learned) was on a mission to draw in tourism for the Phrae region and the Akha people in particular, introducing visitors to these unique people and their way of life.

The village was buzzing with energy as all the children came out fully adorned in their tribal clothes and headdresses. They looked like something out of a fairy tale. The clothing was immaculately stitched together with various colours and real silver coins. Each headdress was completely different from the next, not one of them identical. A common theme seemed to be pompoms on the women and girls, and feathers for the boys. They were adorable and spectacular all at once.

They began to all line up in a single file and await their gifts. After we handed out all the toys and school supplies, the woman who seemed like the head matriarch insisted on showing us the kids’ swing.

At first we were confused by this invitation, until we realized that it was literally a makeshift swing they wanted to show us. The children took turns, one at a time, sitting in a looped rope hanging from what looked to be a wooden swing set. I was left in awe at how something so simple could mean so much to them, seeing their eyes shine with excitement as they swung back and forth through the air.

akha tribe phrae

The eldest woman in the village rushes to the group after putting her outfit on. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

After much hugging, waving and saying our goodbyes, we parted ways.

It was only then, after we’d left, that Alek informed us that these Akha people had never seen the likes of us before. The only other visitors they’d had were a group of Japanese tourists the week before, besides the occasional visit from a Scottish missionary.

I was in shock. I thought we were just one of many groups to go up there and greet them, and was wondering before if they had a routine they took tourists through.

In that moment, I felt so incredibly privileged to have had that rare interaction with these indigenous people. They were kind, loving, and grateful to us. Though we communicated little in person, they spoke volumes through their faces and actions alone.

Watch Season 1