CHIANG RAI – Every year during the rainy season, the Akha tribe in Chiang Rai hold what is known locally as Yae-Khu-A-Paew. Called the Swing Festival in English, this festival of daring commemorates the goddess of fertility and honours women.
Akha communities in Chiang Rai, will be pulsating with energy and music during the Akha Swing Festival this Saturday and Sunday. You don’t have to be a member of the tribe to enjoy it either because this annual festival always welcomes visitors to the village for tribal music, a feast and, of course, a chance to check out the swing.
The two-day event in Mae Fah Luang district celebrates life and fertility.
With the crops growing well and a promising harvest ahead, members of the Akha tribe let themselves go every August or September and mark the season with feasting and fun.
The thrilling but sadly vanishing Swing Ceremony is where visitors can break bread, enjoy music and dance and have a go on the giant swing at several of the Akha villages in this Northern Province.
The Akha are an indigenous hilltribe living in small villages high in the mountains of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China’s Yunnan Province. More than 80,000 Akha live in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, making them one of the larger of the highland tribes.
The annual Swing Festival is pretty much about women and fertility, according to Chiang Rai’s Akha Education and Culture Centre.
According to Akha legend, Ko Ti Ah Ber sang an Akha folk song during the first Swing Festival and her beautiful song reached the God of Rain in heaven. Enticed by the Akha song, the god then blessed the Akha folks with enough rain for their crops. Ever since then, the women of the tribe have dressed up in beautiful costumes and celebrate the festival shortly before the harvesting season.
On the first day, families hold private rites to honour their ancestors. Houses and hamlets are bedecked with colourful flowers, new clothes are bought, but the highlight is definitely the giant swing.
In the morning the Akha women in tribal costumes that sport spectacular silver head-dresses, short black skirts and broad leggings, take a short trip to the “holy well” in the community and return with buckets of water for cooking. Sticky rice buns with black sesame steamed chicken, rice wine and hot tea are offered at the ancestral altar.
On the second day, the men head out to the forest to chop down the wood to make the giant swing, which is set up in the village’s recreation ground.
The swing is made of four long lengths of saplings, or sometimes four hefty lengths of bamboo, with a yoke or shaped wooden bar at the top. A long rope made of heavy woven vine and bark strips is hung down with a loop woven into it. When the giant swing is completed, the Akha shaman will tie a handful of stone, thorny vine and Devil’s grass to the hanging seat. The stone represents strength and stability, while the thorny vine and Devil’s grass are about wellbeing and productivity.
The shaman will take the first swing. Then, the old folks and younger ones take it in turns for the ritual ride.
The appeal lies in Akha women, as they fly into the air singing, wishing, laughing and screaming. As the swing oscillates like a pendulum, they recite their Akha verses and expect the heavens to answer their call for a good harvest and a promising future.
After night everyone gathers at the community ground, brightened by a campfire. Men and women keep the tribal beats going, as they tamp down the ground with bamboo tubes then sing and dance until late.
IF YOU GO
The annual Akha Swing Festival is celebrated on August 29-30 at Phra Siam Thewathiraj Park, Mae Fa Luang district, Chiang Rai. For more information, call Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chiang Rai at (053) 717 433.