Akha swing ceremony - 2009, 2010, 2011....

Discussion in 'Touring Northern Thailand - Trip Reports Forum' started by Rod Page, Sep 7, 2011.

  1. There are 2 dominant landmarks/symbols in an Akha village - the Sacred Gate & the 'Swing'.

    The Swing Ceremony is unique to the Akha tribe. It falls in August or September each year depending on when that particular village will harvest its rice. Determined by the village priest, the date can change often making planning difficult.

    The Swing Ceremony is a sacred thanksgiving ritual & form of ancestral worship. Through the ceremony & its associated merry-making, feasting, singing & dancing, the Akha show respect & gratitude to their ancestors, who, in turn, give well-being, welfare & crop abundance to their descendants.

    The ceremony also marks a 'rite of passage' for Akha girls passing into womanhood. Its this later component that makes the ceremony so very spectacular - the girls of the village come dressed in their finest hand-made/hand embroided clothing/costumes. Indigo dyed cotton cloth jackets skirts & 'leg wraps' are embroided in intricate patterns of every possible distinctive colour. The most ornate of headware made from silver (they weigh around 5kgs each) & colourful beads adorn their heads. The girls laugh their heads off as they launch each other on the swing - individually, in pairs, seated, standing.......

    Phamee Akha headdress:


    U Lo Akha headdress:


    Dressed to kill:



    We headed off from Chiang Mai shortly after sunrise, northward bound for Chiang Rai then on up to Doi Tung & the Queen Mother's magnificent gardens.

    I'd established a good contact when we visited the Royal Villa & gardens, a 'girl from the mountains' whose family had migrated from Burma several generations ago (like the hill-tribes we'd visit today had done). Through her I'd been able to determine which Akha village was our preferred destination & in turn she'd been liaising with the tribal headman & village priest to ascertain when their Swing Ceremony would take place, & to ensure we were welcome to attend.

    The 'chosen area' was that magnificent stretch of road marking the border between Thailand & Burma. Steep, narrow, twisting & incredibly spectacular it is little used as it weaves in & out of the two countries. At times one passes through 'border controls' where armed forces from Thailand look across over armed military from Burma & visa-versa; an area/region where, at the time of reporting, the Shan Independance Army were fighting the Burmese Army, fighting which had led to 30,000 refugees fleeing over the Chinese border.

    We were heading to the Phamee Akha, a village with a spectacular setting high up in the limestone cliffs looking out over the fertile plains of Chiang Rai province. We arrived to find the older men of the village finalising the installation of the swing, with the ceremonies to start later in the day, but determined to have no 'down-time' we headed to Phahee Village, somewhat higher up the mountain but in an equally impressive setting.

    They were, to say the least, surprised to see us, but what a spectacle lay before us the only two outsiders to stumble across the event.

    I'll let the photos do the talking..........

    Phahee Village:


    The village headman's son checks the swing:


    One-up seated:



    Two-up seated:



    Two-up standing:



    Those from the hill-tribe who participated together with a well-travelled GT Rider:

  2. when and where this year
  3. 2010

    We took the exhilarating climb to Mae Salong, home not only to the jin haw (galloping chinese) but also to an impressive array of hill-tribe peoples. We had returned to witness the Akha Swing Ceremony. As with each year there are varying dates for different villages but all falling into roughly into a 2 week period. I headed out to be reassured with preparations in the isolated Akha villages of Pahka, Ahbea & San Jai, villages where the ceremony was to take place the following day, but in the knowledge that the 'Akha Way' can see many last minute changes to programming!

    We had an absolutely magic day starting early the next morning motorbiking all over the mountains, up & down, in & out of various villages witnessing this marvellous ceremony. From the very local affair conducted at Ahbea to the massive gathering at San Jai it was the most memorable of days. We were struck by the warmth of the Ahbea ceremony where the girls of the village danced from house to house along the way to the swing being plied with corn & rice wiskey by their male counterparts. San Jai was feast of colour as members of the 3 major sub-groups of Akha showed off their best in a setting packed with Akha relevance where the swing ajoined the village gate. The Akha are animists; one should not walk through the gate unless you will spend time in one of the village houses. The gate with its large wood-carved man & woman figures with their exagerated sexual organs, 'separates' the human world from the spirits.

    Some photos from San Jai; those from Ahbea will follow....

    The Village Gate & traditional carvings:




    Some traditional entertainment:







    Swings - the later is the traditional swing:


  4. A dozen random portraits from the 2010 Akha Swing Ceremony at Ahbea, a small community 'at the end of the road' not far from Doi Mae Salong whose warm inhabitants were thrilled to receive some foreigners thirsty for knowlege of Akha culture & eagre to participate in their ceremonies:












  5. Robert - Most of the smaller village ceremonies are over - Phahee, Phamee, Phasang-Na-Ngern, Akha Phaguay & so on were all held 26-28 August.
    You're a chance for something still at Jar Lor, or for sure at Ban Sai Sook Jai tomorrow.
  6. Where is Ban Sai Sook Jai?
  7. Ban San Sook Jai:
    On H1 just north of Mae Chan there's a left - R1130 - that heads out towards Mae Salong. R1338 runs right off this road (usually signposted as an alternative route to Doi Tung). Take R1338 out for a couple of kilometres & just after the first significant rise/just before there''s a good view down over the plains you'll see a road veering left. Take this road & head in a couple of kilometres until yo reach a 'T' intersection. Turn left & continue to the end of the road. (Good road/s all the way).
    As usual the GTR map is excellent - its around the area marked 'Rak Akha' on the map.
    You should not have a problem as most people in the area are Akha so just ask. There will also be heaps of Akhas heading there - its the cultural centre for the Akha - so just follow them.
  8. 2011
    We rode up via different paths - rain saw some of us stopping at Tha Ton & others at Chiang Rai depending on the route we were taking to Ban San Sook Jai, the cultural centre of the Akha. We trusted that if it was raining on the plains it would be raining above in the hills & that a late start to the ceremony would welcome us.

    We arrived to a wet Doi Mae Salong so stayed for lunch. The afternoon cleared to offer the best views I've seen in the area; so off to the Akha we headed.

    We arrived to find a large crowd of Akha but a damp & muddied swing area; the proceedings had got under way earlier as planned despite the rain:




    Notwithstanding one cant help but be struck by the colour of this proud people, moved by a culture & heritage spanning back over many centuries. Some photos in an attempt to do them some justice.......





  9. What a wonderful and picturesque report!

    I would have loved to attend this colorful celebration, but there was no posting of this year's event.
    I hope that someone will provide some advance notice, next year.
  10. Great ceremony, wonderful pictures ... I have only one regret; I did not participate. Must put it in the agenda for another year! Thank you for sharing this.
  11. As already posted by Rod, the morning of the festival was wicked. I have never seen so much rain in one morning throughout my 18 years in Thailand. However early afternoon it cleared up and the sun came shining through to provide a very hot afternoon indeed but not a good time for photos I am afraid.
    So we headed off to the ceremony and arrived to find a bit of a quagmire but the festivities were underway with gusto and in the mud...


    Everyone seemed happy though, well some more than others



    We went back to Doi Mae Salong for the night and the ride back was spectacular with the clear air. Views down to Chiang Rai

    The following day we went poodling around Tha Ton where the river was high from all the rain


    But the views from above Tha Ton are indeed spectacular and the roads a joy to ride with no one else around..



    And although there is not a hell of a lot to do in Tha Ton, we found the Sunshine Coffee which truly has the best coffee and food. The BLT and beef noodles were exceptional. Just over the bridge on the left heading south


    A top spot to get the nose bag on heading home,
  12. A bump from far away shores.

    The Akha Swing Ceremony takes place each year in August or September; there's no fixed date as the timing is left to each village's 'priest' (which means you will have to do your research/work your contacts to determine which village or villages whose ceremonies you wish to participate in & then determine on which date the ceremony will fall).

    The Swing Ceremony is truly fabulous stuff. The centre for Akha Culture is out near Thoed Thai & those knowing the area should be able to seek information for readers via a ride out that way (see my post from September 2011 above for detailed directions). Somboon & Vi Toon at Little Home GH in Doi Mai Salong will also be able to furnish you with information from various more remote villages in that area (well worth attending). The spectacular setting of Phamee & particularly Phehee villages along the ridge road that hugs the Thai/Burmese border between Doi Tung & Mae Sai offer a setting you'll never forget so its worth doing the scout work in advance to determine dates.

    Half your luck if you can make one of these tremendous events.
  13. Great photos Rod and good information.

    Just found out, today, that there is an Akha Swing festival on 1st and 2nd September at Bahn Huay Kon, at the end of road 1207, about 12 klms northwest from Chiang Rai, past Mae Yao and turn right at Thung Luang. Small tarmac road all the way.
    1st Sep, day 1, 09:00 - 10:00; Giving thanks to Ancestors and elders. Not sure what the rest of the day holds.
    2nd Sep, day 2, morning; building the swing. Evening; party and celebration. I was told this would be the best part, so I plan to arrive in the afternoon.

    There will be a festival at Bahn Pa Hee as well (top pictures in Rod's post above), up on the border road, just north of Doi Chang Moob, but I have no information on dates. However, it will be around this time.

    Echoing Rod's comments; If you have not attended one of these great cultural hill tribe festivals before, you should make the effort to go. They are well worth seeing and a great colourful photo opportunity. I doubt there will be any other farangs who go, apart from those who read this, as it's not easy to find out the dates and venues.

  14. Ian - for the ceremony at Pha Hee you might be able to determine dates/times in contacting the reception desk at the Doi Tung project (Queen Mother's chalet/garden). Alternatively if you are up there riding that fabulous road along the Thai-Burmese border where Baan Pha Hee is sensationally set, you could ride in & ask..........head down into the village & continue to where the road doglegs sharply right. At the corner you'll find the village primary school on your left. The lady in charge is the village headman's wife & she'll definitely know.

    After we attended this ceremony in 2009 a foreign film crew heard of the event & arrived with full-on TV cameras for the 2010 ceremony paying the village to start a day earlier than planned...........cant blame them when you see the site!!!

    A little further along the same access road you'll find Baan Pha Mee (the swing is set on a hill to your left as you enter the village). Often Pha Hee holds it ceremomy in the early afternoon & Pha Mee will follow later in the afternoon of the same day so that those from both villages can mingle. Worth a thought as the setting here is also truly unbelievable!

    Finally, of course, Khun Somboon at the magical Little Home GH in Doi Mae Salong should know when the ceremonies in that area are to take place. These are well worth attending as they are smaller villages, off the beaten track & their ceremonies have a great deal of authenticity (& plenty of rice wine!).
  15. Hi Rod,
    Yes, I know that border road very well. Been going up there regularly for years, on a bike or with hotel guests. It's best run from south to north and if time allows, take the entire road, up from near Thoed Thai and come out at Doi Chang Moob, hang a left and run down off the mountain on the ridge road past Pa Hee. There's rarely anyone else up there as most of the traffic goes straight up the main road to Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang, then back down again.
    I think one of these festivals will be enough for me this year, so I'll settle for Huay Kon.
    Thanks for the info, hope the ankle has recovered.
  16. Hopefully it will permit others wishing to participate in this unique event to do so.
  17. Yes indeed, great info. ...and your photos are really superb Rod.

    A question for you....
    The three sub groups of the Akha are the Phamee. the U-Lo and what is the name of the third, which I presume is the ladies with the head dress containing the large silver balls.?
  18. Ian,

    According to http://tudtu.tripod.com/hillsty1.htm the Ulo Akha headdress consists of a bamboo cone, covered in beads, silver studs and seeds, edged in coins (silver rupees for the rich, baht for the poor) topped by several dangling chicken feather tassels and maybe a woolen pom-pom.

    The Pamee Akha wear a trapezoidal colt cap covered in silver studs with coins on the beaded side flaps and long chains of linked silver rings hanging down each side.

    The Lomi Akha wear a round cap covered in silver studs and framed by silver balls, coins and pendants and the married women attach a trapezoidal inscribed plate at the back. By the way, Akha women sleep with their headdress on, though the Ulo women remove the top half first.
  19. Javawa,

    Good info and good link, thank you for the explanation. The headdresses really are amazing and all that silver must be polished up before any of these festivals..

    I always wondered about the coins too. So it would seem that most of them are silver Rupees from the days of British India that found their way through Burma and have been handed down through families. Here's some info on the coins that you see on the headdresses.

    "After Queen Victoria died in 1901, King Edward VII ascended the throne. The Edward VII series of coins of India are dated 1903-1910.
    The King Edward VII coins are distinct in that the head is uncrowned. The apparent explanation is, though Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, Edward's coronation was not held till 9 August 1902. The master dies were created before the coronation, so it was not possible to show him wearing the crown! It is reported that a new portrait was prepared for 1910, but King Edward's death that year prevented the issue of any coins.
    King Edward VII died on May 6, 1910 and was followed to the throne by his son King George V, who had his coronation on June 22, 1911. Coins were minted in India with the effigy of King George V from 1911 to 1936. Due to the increase in the price of silver caused by World War I, the silver 1/2 Rupee, 1/4 Rupee and 2 Annas were discontinued and new cupro-nickel coins introduced."
  20. Advise that this event is about to take place prompts me to 'bump' this report forward as a means of giving readers added information indeed encouragement to attend this exceptional event.

    The best advice is to make enquiries around the areas mentioned in this report - rest assured the most remote villages will provide the most exceptional welcome & spectacle.
  21. I see that GTR continues to get on-going plugs plugs not only in Lonely Planet but also on Tripadvisor - see http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g297920-i9940-k6707827-Akha_Swing_Ceremony_Sept_1_and_2-Chiang_Rai_Chiang_Rai_Province.html

    Further useful information can be found in an article which recently appeared in The Nation - see http://www.nationmultimedia.com/travel/Rites-of-fertility-30213087.html

    I trust the above information assists those seeking to find a venue to watch this stunning event.

    If all else fails try Somboon at Little Home Guest House in Doi Mae Salong or John at Rim Taan Guest House in Thoed Thai - they may have information on events being held in the nearby hillsides. (Move quickly as you would appear to have less than a week).

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