FACE-TO-FACE: The Akha Tribe of Myanmar
Location: East Shan State, Myanmar
Date: Aug 2012
Photographer: Boaz Rottem
5 a.m. Sitting in the back of a rusty tuk-tuk, I left my hotel for the villages of the Akha tribe in the Shan hills, west of Kengtung, Myanmar. The two-hour ride on these bumpy dirt roads felt excruciatingly long. The scenic views of green paddy fields dotted with farmers industriously bent over their crop compensated for this bone rattling ride; the peace and quiet shattered by the raspy sound of my tuk-tuk’s engine belching smoke as it tried to negotiate this rugged terrain. I was relieved when we finally arrived at the village where we embarked on our trek.
I was curious to meet the Akha people in this new context. Previously, I had seen them in Laos, Thailand and China, where they are known as the Hani minority. Thirty minutes into our walk, a friendly Akha woman walking down the muddy path with her buffalo, was a sign that a village was close by.
Our arrival at this Akha village was greeted by a group of excited children and barking dogs. Our gracious hosts promptly invited us into their homes, built on stilts, to have a cup of local tea and fresh bananas from their garden. Outside, some men were weaving mats from palm leaves, later to be used as walls for a new house. The women’s traditional attire embellished with old coins, mostly from the British era, stood in contrast to the French coins worn by their Laotian and Chinese cousins, remnants of the French rule (Indochina). Most fascinating was the fact that the women had their teeth stained black. This colour, achieved from chewing on a combination of burnt branches and betel nut, is considered attractive in Akha culture.
As I continued my hike, I met another elderly Akha woman walking her buffalo. With her permission, I took her photo and showed it to her. In response to seeing herself thus captured, she began laughing loudly, excited and bewildered at the sight of her own face, trapped in the tiny digital window. This was the perfect opportunity to capture her spontaneous smile complete with the dark cave of her mouth, charred by years of burnt betel nut chewing. Her face, in its leathery wrinkled layers, had a lifetime of stories to tell.