CHIANG RAI – The Akha swing high in the air as they honour their ancestors and ask the gods for a good harvest.
With the rice growing well and a promising harvest ahead, members of the Akha tribe in Chiang Rai are donning their colourful finery and preparing to make merry in an annual ritual that celebrates life and fertility.
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 annual Swing Festival is pretty much about women and fertility, according to Kraisit Sitthichodok from Chiang Rai’s Akha Education and Culture Centre.
Kraisit explains that the legendary Ko Ti Ah Ber sang an Akha folk song during the first Swing Festival and her beautiful song reached the God Rain in heaven. Enticed by the tribal music, the god then blessed the Akha folks with enough rain for their crops. Ever since then, the women of the tribe have dressed in the beautiful costumes and celebrate the festival shortly before the harvesting season.
The Akha are an indigenous hilltribe who live 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.
For four days and nights from late August to early September, the Akha folk in Thailand’s North celebrates the Swing Festival, an event that appeases their ancestor as much as the rain god.
The sought-after celebration brings fun and ritual to the villages and these days also draws curious visitors and amateur anthropologists for an extravaganza of folk dance, tribal music and an adrenaline kicks as they take they returns on the giant swing.
On the first day, families hold private rites to honour their ancestors.
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 bamboos, 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 thorny vine and Devil’s grass are about well being and productivity.
“The shaman will take the first swing,” says Termsak, an Akha man in Chiang Rai province. “Then, the old folks and younger ones will take turn for the ritual ride.”
The appeal lies in Akha women, as they fly into the air singing, wishing, laughing and screaming. As the swing keep oscillating like a pendulum, they recite their Akha verses and expect the heavens to answer their call for good harvesting season 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. They sing and dance until late at night.
On the third day, every household throws a party. Pork is on the menu and home-made whiskey is uncorked. The tribal music and dance continue well into the night.
The ceremony lasts until the fourth day, with many Akha girls continuing to take turns on the swing.
_ The annual Akha Swing Festival is celebrated in Chiang Rai province from late August to early September. Check it out at following villages.
_ Baan Huay Yo village, Mae Fa Luang’s Mae Salong Nai sub-district (August 28-31)
_ Baan Apha Phattana village, Mueng Chiang Rai (August 30-September 2)
_ Huay Yuak Pa So village, Mae Fa Luang district (September 2)
_ Doi Saenchai, Mae Fa Luang (September 8-11)
_ For more information, call Tourism Authority of Thailand, Chiang Rai at (053) 717 433