“poi Ton Tee” – The Kayan New Year


Oct 23, 2009
The “Poi Ton Tee” celebration (also called “Kay Htoe Boe” in Karenni and “Kan Kwan” in Kayan language) is the Kayan new year festival. It takes place, usually and depending of the moon’s position, sometimes at the end of March. In Mae Hong Son province, it is mostly organised in the two remaining major Kayan villages, Huay Pu Keng and Huay Sua Tao.

I have not found publications, in English, describing this religious tradition and I am grateful to Nai Noung, Huay Pu Keng’s village headman, for his help to get an inside in his people’s history and traditions (for more information about the Kayan long neck tribe in Mae Hong Son province see my end-note with references to GT-Rider publications).


Nai Noung, Huay Pu Keng’s village headman

NB the information provided in my write-up are meant to be captions for my pictures and have no ethnographic pretensions.


« Abataraori », the Kayan salute will greet visitors at the “Kan Kwan” (Poi Ton Tee) festival. In march 2018 Huay Pu Keng performed the thirty’s anniversary of this celebration in the village, an ancestral tradition. It was reinitiated after they had left, as refugees, their Kayah home state, now under Burmese administration.

Huay Pu Keng, sometimes known as Nam Phiang Din (the name of the neighboring village), is one of the three remaining Kayan settlements, open to visitors, in Mae Hong Son province. The place can be reached on paved roads, at a distance of 24 kilometers, outside Mae Hons Son, to the downstream Pai river shore. From there, small boats, operated by the locals, take visitors over the stream.


Huay Pu Keng located on the Pai river’s north rim, downstream of Mae Hong Son

“Poi Ton Tee” (Kay Htoe Boe) is a three days celebration with various highlights. It is an Earth’s genesis commemoration, reflecting the World’s creation by their own god, through a pole planted in the soil. Every year, the Karenni erect a symbolic decorated stem and celebrate around it for luck and good health.


"Kan Kwan” the traditional Karenni religion

First day: felling the tree

The celebration begins with the task of fetching an appropriate tree, in the nearby forest. While several species can provide suitable stems, the choice is often limited by availability in the neighborhood. The preferred wood is: “Ton Wa “(Eugenia Jambolan), the well-known “Teak” (Tectona grandis) and, now-a-days, often “Ton Tung” (Dipterocarpus of the Yang family, the Gurjan tree) whose leaves are used to build thatched roofs.

For this annual celebration, the Kayan villages get the official authorization to choose and take out an adequate timber. Some days, before the ceremony, the village shaman explores the forest to localize a suitable tree and chicken bones divination is performed to confirm or reject the choice.

Early, on the morning of the festival’s first day, the tree is felt, and, after a first trimming, the chosen trunk is slide down to a clearing where the villagers are assembled. It is than further cleaned and roughly sculpted to its draft form.


The chosen tree is pruned and slide down the sloop


A rough carving gives the trunk its draft shape


Several men are helping in the peeling and carving process


Carving the rough shape


The task to take away the bark


Preparing the stem's shape on site


A group of Kayan waiting for the stem to be ready


A group of Karenni waiting to transport the stem

Once the tree stem is debarked and roughly shaped, the villagers upload it on their shoulders and, in a parade, bring it to the village. The number of load-bearing men is not fixed but linked to the trunk’s actual weight.


The parade, led by the village headman


The heavy trunk is carried on the villager’s shoulders


Parade to the village with the new pole


Transporting the heavy load to its destination


Arrival at the boat landing place and continuing toward the dwelling

When the parade enters the village center it is greeted by Kayan ladies lining up to spatter the procession. The water is blessed with “Sompoi”, a dry fruit from an Acacia tree, which is believed to bring good luck and is widely used for this purpose in the region. The splatching itself is done with Eugenia leaves (Ton Wa leaves) the most important tree in the Karenni’s mythology.


Blessing with water and Eugenia leaves

A specific sacred site is reserved to erect the “Ton Tee” stems, slightly uphill, on the village’s side. Once the parade reaches this place, the newly cut trunk is first kept horizontally, supported by easels. The following tasks are the stem’s final carving and the preparation of its symbolic decoration. While knowledgeable craftsmen perform these operations, the other villagers dance and play music on the compound.


At destination, the tree gets its final carving and decoration


Karenni performing dances and music on the sacred compound


A group of Karenni with their music instruments

After a meeting of the Kayan villages leaders from Mae Hong Son province, a choice is made to organize the “Poi Ton Tee” festival in one of the dwellings. The other communities are then invited to participate to the common celebration. Now-a-days, representatives of the Karenni ethnic group are mostly found in “Huay Pu Keng”, “Huay Sua Tao”, and in “Huay Pu Long” (on the Burmese side). The once important settlement, in Nai Soi (Kayan Tahar) is nearly deserted, but a large group is still hosted in the UNCHR managed camp (“Suan Opayop” refugee camp 1, near Nai Soi).

The yearly ceremony provides a seldom meeting opportunity, and, in modern times, taking picture is, of course, part of the entertainment.


Participants line up for a group picture


A group of (mostly) “Red Karen” (Karenni)


Red Karen in traditional costume


Portrait of Red Karen ladies

Second day: sport and rejoicing

While some craftsmen are busy to put the last touch to the new pole’s decoration, the younger villagers spent the day in sportive competitions like football and volleyball.


The new trunk carved and adorned with symbolic decorations

The tree’s decoration is highly symbolic with the sun at its peak and other elements, like the stars, the moon, some meaningful animals and a long piece of cloth representing a ladder for the spirits.

Next to the stem is the “kantan”, a podium with offerings to the gods and to the guardian spirits. The original stem was an Eugenia, the first tree grown in the World; as this species is now scarce, other trees are also used for the poles.


A detailed panels (in Thai language only) explains the pole’s symbolic decorations

The Karenni play some traditional music instruments during their ceremonies; for instance, auspicious skin drums and bronze klon gongs, as well as bamboo flutes


Kayan traditional music instruments

At dusk, while the villagers gather to welcome important guests, the former year’s poles are waiting for a new companion to be erected the next day.


Previous years poles at sunset

High ranking officials, of Mae Hong Son province, are invited for the evening’s celebration. The villagers line up on the boat landing place to ceremoniously welcome their guests.


A group of Karenni waiting for their guests


Dwellers of different villages are assembled an prepare to receive the officials


Group picture of Karenni from different villages


Group of Kayan ladies


Evening reception of the officials from Mae Hong Son province


A colorful parade leads the visitors to the festive place


The shaman leads the parade to the sacred compound

The guests are invited to dinner and entertained with traditional dances and music on a stage.


Kayan ladies on stage performing a traditional dance


Kayan performing a dance on stage


Young Kayan on stage


Young Kayan in traditional costumes


Kayan couples performing a traditional dance


A group of Kayan playing music and dancing on stage


Karenni performing on stage


Kayan with bamboo flutes playing traditional music on stage

The evening’s stage performance last till about nine o’clock; visitors who did not check in for the night are then ferried back, across the Pai river, in the village’s dinghies.


Crossing back the Pai river in local boats

Third day: Putting the new pole in place

During the first two days, the new pole has be felt, transported to the sacred compound and adorned with a symbolic decoration. Now, on the festival’s third day, it is waiting to be erected, near to its siblings from the former years.


The decorated pole, ready to be erected


Early morning, on the third day, everything is ready for the ceremony


Karenni from different villages are assembled on the ceremonial place


The new pole is moved around the place


Slowly, step by step, the heavy stem is lifted and put in position


Drawn with cords and pushed with wooden shafts the stem is slowly raised


The heavy trunk is slowly moving upward


Finally, the pole takes its erected position and is consolidated in place

Once the new pole is standing, another important part of the festival begins; it is the chicken bone divination, followed by the thanksgiving ceremony.

Reading chicken bones is also practiced in other Asian cultures, for instance by the Khmu of Laos. Various legends explain this practice, particularly the fact that books where easily destroyed and that even scriptures on leather could be lost and even eaten by animals. The science of divination, on its side, can be learned and transmitted from generation to generation. It is not only exercised by the shaman, but used by anybody who has learned it.

The tight bones of sacrificed chicken are examined, and small bamboo straws are inserted in existing wholes. The relative position and inclination of the sticks gives the necessary clues to the appraiser. This divination method plays an important role in the Karenni life and is used in all important occasions.


A knowledgeable person reading chicken bones


Small wooden sticks are inserted in the bones' holes for the divination


The following part of the ceremony is the thanksgiving around the poles


Thanksgiving prayers by the participants


Finally, dwellers from the various Karenni villages, perform traditional dances


Dances accompanied by traditional instruments around the sacred place


The decorated new pole is standing near to its siblings


Karenni from different villages dance and play traditional instruments


A group of Karenni from Camp 1


A Kayan man in traditional dress


A Kayan man playing the bamboo flute


A Kayan man in traditional dress


Offerings on the spirits altar

The religious ceremony comes to an end at mid-day, but the festivities will go on for the rest of the third day. Neighbors, friends and visitors from Mae Hong Son invade the village; they are invited in private houses to eat and drink and enjoy the Kayan hospitality.

TARANGBANA” (thank you)



This is my third write-up of a series of stories about the Mae Hong Son region and the Kayan tribe. The first stories “Mae Hong Son Nostalgia” and “The Road to Nai Soi” can be found on these links:

Mae Hong Son Nostalgia
The Road To Nai Soi (karen Long Neck)

Kayan tribe write-ups on GT-Rider:

David’s comprehensive story with historic background:
The Long Necks

My other Kayan stories:
A Visit To Mae Hong Son's Kayan Tribes.

Mae Hong Son loop - twenty years later

An updated edition of David’s popular “Mae Hong Son Loop” map, the 6th edition, was released in February 2018. It is not only an indispensable travel companion and complements to GT-Rider’s forum information, it is valuable souvenirs and even a collector’s items.

Here is the reference link to the map: 2018 Gtr Mae Hong Son Loop Map


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Staff member
Mar 22, 2016
Hi Jurgen - thanks for your efforts in posting this enlightening explanation of Karenni culture. The photographs are a truly superb illustration of the practices, the people and their traditional dress. Absolutely stunning, and I'm sure other readers will also be captivated by the text and imagery...


Jan 5, 2008
Great report Jurgen.
Thanks for posting The Poi Ton Tee celebration which must have been an interesting event to witness.
Beautiful photos.



Oct 23, 2009
Thank you, friends, for reading my write-up and for commenting. I hope that showing interest to the Kayan’s culture will help them to keep their traditions alive.

We are very fortunate, in North Thailand, not only because of the fabulous meander of various routes, but also for the ethnic diversity of people living in the region, just along our itineraries. They provide additional incentives for trips to many joyful and colorful experiences, during their festivals.

King of Jars

Feb 27, 2008
Nongprue, Cholburi, Thailand
Absolut epic, again, Jürgen - thank you for sharing all this with us. This forum would be a much poorer place without your fantastic endeavours and thoroughness in research, photography and write-up.
Thank you and best wishes from Nong Khai - Peter