Laos Ethnic Minority Arts – Part One

I had the honor of visiting a traditional Akha village during a recent visit to the Phongsaly province of northern Laos.

Throughout northern areas of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam you can find these traditional settlements, widely known for the traditional dress worn by the woman, as well as the handicrafts they make. I have previously written about these textiles and how may of the traditional garments are being deconstructed, with intricate hand sewn motifs from various ‘hill tribes’ being sold off as scraps.

Akha village in northern Phongsali province, Laos

I admit I knew somewhat what to expect, as I had visited the Black and Red Hmong of northern Vietnam previously, but as that was far more accessible to tourism, naturally it had altered the perception of these people and their way of life, catering more to this ‘tourist’ market. They had been extremely chatty and entirely unphased by foreigners.

The Black Hmong of Sapa – Northern Vietnam

The Akha I visited were incredibly shy and obviously not used to visitors. They are animist in belief (the belief of spirit ancestry incarnations) and only a few were happy for me to take their photo, which I of course respected; it was a totally different experience and really eye opening. We were invited into one family home; a simple one story bamboo house where two extended families were living together. After showing them my camera and how it worked, they thought it was a great game taking photos.

Selfie time with the Akha children, Laos

The father was comatose in the corner, smoking an opium pipe. Opium production used to be (and in places still is) a source of income for the Aka people, it has also lead to high addiction levels. This is something that is slowly changing, but of course, in older generations it’s near impossible to give up.

Akha family and women, Laos

Akha women don the traditional dress after marriage; this includes a heavy headpiece, which is only taken off for sleeping. The daughter in law of the chief of the village showed me some embroidery she had done, and through the guide I was able to understand that upon engagement, the bride to be begins creating her ‘married dress’. It is a sought after quality which elevates your status. Through demonstrating these skills as a woman, through their dress, they are able to show off this gift, as well as insert some creative flare. Their traditional dress becomes their identity.

Young Akha woman in full dress, Laos

In South East Asian ethnic minority groups, embroidery, weaving and craft are a key part of daily life. Motifs taken from nature take on abstract forms and form the basis of all textile patterns; telling stories and taking on cultural representations. I will write a separate piece on some of the key motifs and their meanings, as there is just so much variety and meaning!

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