Tourism has long been a major source of revenue for the Thai economy. In the rush to lure and secure more tourism dollars, the development of tourist attractions has, more often than not, been at the expense of local cultures and customs. This makes initiatives like Ban Lorcha all the more important. Under the auspices of PDA, Ban Lorcha is a not for profit initiative which both showcases and preserves Akha hilltribe culture.
Ban Lorcha is a small Akha hilltribe village in the mountain ranges of northern Thailand. We paid a small fee (about 50 Baht) which is put back into the Akha community through development funds for health care, orphanages and the elderly. An Akha villager was our tour guide, speaking in Thai, which Ae translated to English for us. Ae explained that several members of the village took it in turns to be the guides, as this gives them am opportunity to start a career in the lucrative tourism industry; and when they earn, their village improves!
Our guide took us through various parts of village, including demonstrations and participation by other members in the village. We were shown how the Akha trap animals, cast metal items, and build their houses, as well as how they weave, dye and embroider their iconic black clothing. We were also encouraged to participate in a demonstration of Akha music and dance, which brought on a case of the giggles as we were horribly out of time. Stopping by the village gate, the guide explained that the gate held a lot of traditional beliefs. It was believed to ward of negative or bad spirits – a reminder that local spiritual beliefs are just as strong as Buddhism in this region. Symbols are carved into the gate, and the corners feature bundles of carved ‘bats’ with patterns painted on them. The whole thing is decorated with palm fronds woven into chains and pendants. Our guide giggled as she pointed the carved figured beside the gate – a male and a female, both well endowed. The male was even smoking a roughly hewn pipe!
We were even taken through a villagers house. It was much larger than I had expected, but simple; bamboo walls with a high, thatched roof. Inside was dark and dusty – the floor was earth, and in the corner was the kitchen fire. Light crept in through the gaps in the bamboo wall slats. The heat was stifling, and the smoke rose lazily to escape through the gaps between the wall and roof. It was an extremely contrasting scene: pots and pans stacked neatly on the floor and plastic baby bottles were sitting in a plastic dish drainer on a dusty shelf. It was a fascinating look at the living arrangements of those Akha hilltribe villagers who were determined to hang on to their traditional heritage. Some of the other houses in the village were raised high on stilts, and featured satellite dishes!
The tour ends at the small village shop. Here, small items made by villagers are sold and the money invested back into Ban Lorcha. This is not the same mass produced gear sold on Khao San Road. The embroidered bags, purses and cushion covers are beautifully hand made and dyed. I bought two pieces of jewellery made by members of the Akha hilltribe; a black and yellow glass piece, and a red and silver necklace. The shop even sold the embroidered, beaded headdresses worn by Akha women. I wish I had’ve bought one home. My only regret from the trip – not buying one!
So.. Ban Lorcha. Should you go?
Yes. While Ban Lorcha is definitely designed for tourists and seems a little forced, but that is the point. It is designed to allow tourists to discover the culture and life of the Akha hilltribe, without enabling widespread destruction and dismantling of the culture, as mass tourism can. The tour through the village is informative and engaging, even if the information boards throughout were faded and dated when we visited. It makes for an easy introduction to hilltribe life, without a homestay in a village (although that is on my list!)
You will find a map of the region surrounding Ban Lorcha on the PDA page, linked in the first paragraph.