The people of the *Akha tribe make their living mostly from tourism and self-helpfully because they have no support from the Thai government. They are not even officially recognized as citizens of Thailand. For hundreds of years, they have maintained their own culture and customs we have never seen before.
The women of this tribe love to decorate themselves. Their heads are covered with shiny and colorful decorations and they also mostly wear brightly colored beads on their necks. What has caught my attention while looking at these smiling people is their custom of coloring their teeth to black. At first, I didn't see it as something special, but after some time I realized that I had never seen such a strange custom during my travels. So I wanted to know more.
I was surprised when my research revealed that this custom is not limited to the Akha tribe at all. Women were coloring their teeth, and they are still doing it, in many places in the world. Not only in Thailand, but also in China, Vietnam, Laos, India, Philippines, some of the Pacific Islands, and Japan where they call this custom Ohaguro. It has even crossed the ocean, and some tribes of northern Peru and Ecuador have maintained the custom of teeth blackening.
As I have learned, the reason for this custom is not just the esthetic aspect. Black teeth have been perceived as more beautiful for these people. There is also a practical aspect of preserving teeth without caries and to lengthen their lifespan. Women with black teeth are considered as beautiful, adult, ready for marriage or living as the upper class. People with black teeth also want to distinguish themselves from animals.
The techniques for achieving the darkest teeth are different. In Japan, women used a solution made by dissolving iron filings in vinegar. They also added tea or chestnut powder. In Vietnam, women use for dyeing a resin from the secretions of small aphid insects, which sucks sap from host trees. The resin is diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. It's then applied with pressure to all the teeth.
In other areas of Southeast Asia coconut husk is burned to form a black sticky char that is then combined with nail filings and adhered to the tooth surface until the dye “takes.” The application is usually repeated because the coating is not permanent.
However, the hundreds to thousands of years lasting tradition could not keep the place in the world influenced by new fashion brought from Europe by colonists. They didn't like this custom. They saw this custom as ugly and unacceptable so they began to ban this custom to enforce their ideas of beauty. So, today the custom of tooth blackening only survives in more isolated places where the fashion of modern people does not have such an impact. The Thai mountains are exactly the place like this. A beautiful place where I´ve met the people of the Akha tribe, the people with the "black smile."
*Akha is an ethnic group living in small villages mainly in the higher elevations of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Yunnan Province in China and Northeast India.
Special thanks to the co-author of the article by Janka Kander for the invaluable help with writing this article.