The Akha Hill Tribe – Laotian Haute Couture

Scattered amongst many tiny mountain villages throughout a region covering the highlands of the Golden Triangle (Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and China’s Yunnan province is an ethnic tribe known as the Akha. Today, they number around 450,000 total, though most are not registered citizens of the country they reside in.

Akha Costume

Like many hill tribes situated in this cross section of Southeast Asia, one of the first things that catches a visitor’s eye is their colourful daily attire. Both the men’s and women’s outfits are typically black or dark blue garments with bright, indigo-dyed embroidery.

Women’s fashion, however, is a league above their male counterparts. And one cannot simply go wardrobe shopping at the local fashion boutique. In fact, most Akha girls are skilled tailors. From an early age, they are taught to grow, harvest and spin cotton as well as dyeing, weaving and embroidery techniques. Their self-made outfits consist of a pleated skirt, loose fitting blouse and, depending on the weather, wide leggings or short leg sleeves.

Akha Women’s Headdress

But what truly sets Akha fashion apart from other highland peoples are the women’s intricate headdresses, also known as the ‘u-coe’. Each head piece is unique to its wearer and can represent her age, local tribe, social and marriage statuses. Beginning in the mid-teens, she exchanges a one-piece cap for an ever-evolving adult headdress and adorns it with various decorations such silver coins and chains; feathers and furs; glass beads and tassels. Because Akha marriages are not pre-arranged, headdresses tend to be the most vibrant during the women’s early twenties, signifying her availability.

These hats are so intertwined with Akha culture that their owners refrain from taking them off, even while working in the fields or sleeping. Headdresses may only be removed for hair washing on a certain day of the week – and an Akha week is twelve days rather than our seven. Merely removing or putting on the multiple pieces and is a lengthy and laborious task, so fortunately this saves time from her busy daily routine. Continually adding to her u-coe over the years, it’s not uncommon for an older Akha woman’s headwear to weigh several kilograms! Conversely, other elderly women choose a simpler, lighter look so their daughters and daughters-in-law can take the spotlight.

Meet the Akha in Person

Laos is Southeast Asia’s most ethnically diverse country, home to 149 official ethnic groups. Among these are the Akha, who can be found in the northern highlands near the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and China.

Heritage Line offers captivating journeys along the upper Mekong River with mesmerizing landscapes, remote native communities and unique cultural insights. Guests have an opportunity to encounter the Akha and other ethnic minorities on our unforgettable 3-, 7- and 9-night cruises.

Photo sources
Young girl (top-left): Creative Commons user Veton PICQ
Akha girls (top-right): Wikipedia Commons user Tango7174