The Akha Sam Yaek Festival

Discussion in 'Festivals & Events - S.E. Asia' started by Jurgen, Sep 23, 2017.

  1. The Akha hilltribe people are originally from China; like other folks from the Mongolian and Yunnan regions, some migrated to the South, particularly to Laos and Thailand, when conditions in their homeland became harsh or when they were pushed aside by invaders.

    North Thailand has been particularly welcoming and provided a suitable environment for these new settlers; nowadays the Lanna region hosts a wide diversity of ethnic groups. Some of them still dwell in specific villages and maintain parts of their ancestral practices.

    A very important tradition, for the Akha tribe, is the “Big Swing Festival”. As implied by its name, the rejoicings are organized around large bamboo poles constructions, allowing people to swing in the air with a rope (for more information and links, published in Gt-Rider Forum, see note[1])

    The Swing Festivals are organized, mostly at the end of August or beginning of September, in many Akha villages. These venues, however, are not touristic and some dwellings are remote and difficult to access. The Mae Salong Nai subdistrict, in Mae Fa Luang district (Chiangrai), has an important number of Akha villages, and the provincial authorities decided to hold and finance a get together for a larger public, with the aim to promote the knowledge and culture of this important hilltribe group. A viewpoint along road 1234, just before Sam Yaek village [2] [3] (coming from Mae Salong), was laid out for this event, which, in 2017, was organized, for the sixth time, on September 9 and 10.

    This photo story features pictures from this interesting, joyful and colorful venue. It had been announced in the “GT-Rider events thread” [1], as it provides a real photographic treat.

    Akha Sam Yaek village is a crossroad along Route 1234 (Mae Salong to Pasang) and Route 4032, a paved road to the Burmese border, through Thoed Thai (Hin Taek), the former den of the opium warlord Khun Sa. The view point, set aside for the venue, offers gorgeous panoramic sights, over the hills, to the North and to the South.

    View toward the North and the Burmese mountains behind Thoed Thai

    View toward the North

    View toward the South

    The Akha Sam Yaek view point host a small Buddhist altar with a mirror background, an ideal place for group pictures (and selfies). Open all year long, it is a valuable stopover for travellers along this itinerary.

    A group of Akha girls in modern attires.

    During the Swing Festival, as the playground is of limited size, cars must be parked, in one lane, all along the main road. It is worth to arrive early, around nine o’clock in the morning, to find a slot near to the center. The official part, however, starts only at around eleven o’clock.

    Akha people in traditional costumes preparing to perform a dance

    Few foreigners were among the spectators and, despite a quite large attendance, most visitors were Akha themselves, some traveling from villages in other provinces. Finally, as open as it might be and promoted for tourists, the venue remains mostly an ethnic rejoicing, with a slightly commercial touch. Spending two days at this festival allows to experience an enjoyable and different culture and to meet and befriend new people.

    The crowd of spectators watching a dance performance

    Other ethnic groups, from the region, are also performing in their own colorfull dresses.

    Vibrant Akha dancers

    The festival’s central attraction is the “big swing” (ching chaa), a large wooden poles construction with a rope allowing people to jump through the air. In the villages the swing is used for a coule of days, then the rope is taken away and it is prohibited to use it again. At the Sam Yaek viewpoint, howeveer, the swing is built with stronger wood and remains in place for the next year.

    During the two days, people who fancy a flight, might take turn on the swing. Men will put one foot in the rope’s buckle and stand, while women sit on a stick slipped through the buckle.

    High in the air, a men standing on the rope’s buckle

    An Akha women, swinging nicely while sitting on a stick at the rope’s end

    An Akha woman in an acrobatic flight.

    Akha ladies, on the swing, are themselves an attraction

    In addition to the “big swing” a turning wheel also provides aerial sensations for people of all ages.

    Young Akha girl on the “turning wheel”



    The highlights, for visitors, are arguably the Aka themselves, with their colorfull dresses, parading around the place and performing traditional dances

    Group of Akha girls waiting to perform

    Akha ladies in traditional dress

    Before the performances, the participants are updating their makeup, helped by skillfull friends or mothers.

    Updating the makeup

    Skilfully adding some shades

    The Akha festival offers a permanent opportunities to shot colorfull pictures, in an environment where most people are not shy to have their portraiture taken.

    Smiling young Akha lady

    Young Akha concentrated for her next performance

    Akha lady with her heavy silver headdress

    Colorfull Akha dresses

    Many variation in the modern Akha headdresses exist, some are linked to different groups, some are just fashion.

    Smiles are everywhere

    Young girl with a modern Hmong dress

    The senior akha people are still full of charm, joyfull or concentrated, they are great subjects for portraitures.

    Group of joyfull Akha women watching a dance performance

    Akha ladies in traditional dress

    A concentrated Akha lady with her tradition headdress

    Akha men also wear typical costumes, usually less decorated, but with typical pieces of embrodery and a particular headdress.

    Typical Akha men headdress

    Akha men in costume

    A colorfull character selling his handicraft at the venue.

    Some other ethnic groups, living in the Mae Salong region, also participate to the festival.

    Ethnic group from Mae Salong

    Ethnic group from Mae Salong

    An old Lahu (Muser) lady

    The festival also provides opportunities for the Akha themselves to take pictures.

    This place was set-up by an Akha friend, specialized in wedding and portrat pictures, allowing people to be photographed and to get their portraits online

    Modern Akha girls taking pictures against the Mae Salong backdrop



    [1] for more information refer to the following Gt-Rider Forum links:

    2017 Akha Swing Festivals
    Akha Swing Festival, Doi Chang 2012

    [2] Ban Sam Yaek Iko (บ้านสามแยกอีก้อ) – The Thai call the Akha people “Iko”

    [3] Facebook pages for Sam Yaek Akha: “บ้านสามแยกอาข่า” and “SamYak.Akha. –

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  2. Fantastic photos, as always, Jurgen, of a Special event. Nice one.
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  3. So wonderful. I particularly loved the photo of the older Akha ladies all laughing together.
    That one for me captured a very lovely moment. Thank you.
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  4. Good stuff Jurgen...

    In a comment you made on my post on the Akha Swing Ceremonies 2009, 2010 & 2011 you wrote:
    Jurgen, Sep 11, 2011
    "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."
    How happy you made me today as I read your wonderful post accompanied by your usual excellent photos & felt the warmth you showed for these people & the joy that flowed to you in being able to participate with them.

    I was also taken by a certain continuity in Akha life in seeing familiar faces still contributing to their rich & deep culture - a culturally enriching experience for all those fortunate enough to participate in such ceremonies with them - & indeed the healthy mix of people from different branches of the Akha family, in particular the U Lo & Phamee Akhas who featured in your photos.

    If there's one thing that will draw me back to Thailand it will be to attend your next Akha Swing Festival with you.

    Cheers Jurgen
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  5. Thank you friends for watching my thread and particularly to Ian, Zoe and Rod for your kind comments. I have been very late to participate to an Akha festival, particularly for calendar reasons. As Rod pointed out, these are wonderful life experiences with gentle and friendly people, making you feel at home at their venues. I had, in the past, admired the reports written by Rod and other GT-rider members and it was about time that I experienced it myself.

    The GT-Rider Forum category “Festivals & Events” provides a wealth of information about venues around S.E. Asia and the “Sam Yaek Festival 2017” had been duly announced there. I really hope that even more friends will make it to the various colourful ethnic events which are one of North Thailand’s treats.
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  6. Brilliant photos Jurgen - I'm jealous that you could make it as this type of festival I love. The spectacle, the colour, the ethnic peoples & you captured the essence of it perfectly.

    Many thanks for the post.
  7. Beautiful photos Jurgen.
    What a great part of the world northern Thailand is to explore.

    I love this photo of the elderly Akha women. Classic.

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  8. Yes, really a Top Class photo.
  9. Bloody excellent pics and write up. What an amazing part of the world and so good to see the rich culture alive and well. Thanks Jurgen.

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