Rich Indeed

Thalat Nat

Travelling north towards Phongsali Province in Laos, we arrived at Muang La. I was keen to meet people from the Akha tribe again, having briefly visited an Akha village last time I was in Laos and been fascinated by them. I asked around and it seemed that most of the Akha were living in villages accessible only by some walking which I wouldn’t manage with my physical limitations. I was put in touch with a French man living locally who had a 4WD and might be able to help. He said it might just be possible but warned that last time the vehicle had tipped over vertically, so it was with a little trepidation that I negotiated a deal. Just as we were finalising arrangements though he came out with “but why do you want to go the villages anyway there’ll be no-one there!” It transpired that I was in luck. What nobody else had mentioned, probably due to my limited Lao, was that tomorrow, only 40 minjutes drive away, was the ‘Thalat Nat’, literally meaning ‘meeting market’ that happens every 10 days when all the Akha from the surrounding hillside villages descend to socialise and trade. The mountain was coming to Mohammed. It’s great when the sun shines on you when you’re travelling.


 Akha Encounters

 (Click on the individual images to see them in full size)

The Akha originated in northern Yunnan or Tibet, and migrated to this area of Laos within the last 200 years. They are one of the more diverse ethnic groups, and it all gets a bit confusing, even for the Akha themselves! Each has their own cultural identity and individuality marked out in part by their clothing, and the ones I met at the market had particularly bright headdresses and adornments, and I think belonged to the Akha Louma group, though there were several others also there that morning as well as Laotians.


Old silver Indochinese coins, historically the principal currency of Laos’ ethnic groups, decorate the womens’ headdresses and clothing, and are an indication of their marital status and wealth. You can make out out the dates on some of the coins in the photos, going back to the early 1900s

 (Click on the individual images to see them in full size)

The Thalat Nat was as much about locals from remote villages meeting for a catch up as it was about trading and spirits were running high. It was a really exciting experience if a little daunting. There was a sea of bright colours and frenetic activity, and although I’ve visited many traditional markets before, this one felt a bit scary. Their natural way of talking to each other (and to me!) sounded pretty aggressive to my gentle ear, and their mannerisms only reinforced this. I didn’t take any photos at first while I adjusted to it and felt safe to do so. As the only tourist there, I was mobbed and surrounded at first partly because of their curiosity and partly as to them I was a walking ATM machine. Unaccustomed to Western visitors they didn’t have touristy items to sell but started taking off their own bracelets and adornments and putting them on me and then demanding pay for them. All done in good humour but a bit overwhelming and no good at all for the photography I had in mind! I was happy to buy the odd homemade bracelet but I didn’t really want fifty, and neither did I want to buy their heirlooms and valuables, symbols of their identity and culture and history which shouldn’t be lost to tourists.


All is forgiven Theng!

I needed Theng, my driver. He doesn’t ‘get’ my interest in hilltribes and minority people and finds the nearest bar and Lao person to talk to and share a smoke with whenever we stop. He might not be able to read a map, (as I found out three days into the trip – but that’s another story!) but he’s great at flirting and getting people to laugh, and did a sterling job charming my assailants, distracting and entertaining them allowing me to step back and take my photos.


As well as appreciating the rescue, I enjoyed seeing another fun loving side of the Akha. I brought out my polaroid camera which was an instant hit, and had fun doing some portraits for them to keep, until the film ran out (I wasn’t going to be allowed to stop until then!). It would have been so easy to have left too soon and formed the wrong impression after just a brief encounter and missed the chance  to have shared some laughs and some give and take.

 (Click on the individual images to see them in full size)

Loved this lady!

I would have loved to be able to stay a little longer and to have been physically up to trekking to their villages, but as a wise man once wrote in his song lyrics “a rich man always wants for more and I was rich indeed” ( Ralph McTell, ‘Naomi’).

I was rich indeed.

Oh well, you can't win 'em all. She did however enjoy having her polaroid photo done!

Oh well, you can’t win ’em all. She did however enjoy having her polaroid photo done!

Categories: LaosTags: , , , ,


  1. Another great blog Clare, love your photos and it would have been an amazing experience, using the polaroid and giving them their photos. Beautiful portraits of some lovely ladies. Lovely to share your stories, thank you. Barb


  2. Thank you Clare for sharing your stories and wonderful photos of the Akha folk. Wonderful portraits, and lovely for you to be able to give them photos to keep using the Polaroid Camera. Barb


  3. Wow these photos are amazing! I also travelled Vietnam and I as well am so fascinated by the hill tribe H’mong near the Chinese border. Where are you planning on going next?


  4. Nice blog Clare thoroughly enjoyed reading it and seeing your lovely shots.


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