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“When you don’t have your country anymore, you can still feel free while swinging in the air.”
This is a song sung by the Akha- the ethnic people who can be found in northern Thailand. Last August, I finally had the chance to experience the annual Akha Swing Festival on the slopes of Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai. Once a year after planting their fields, the Akha gather to celebrate life and to honour their goddess of fertility for the upcoming harvest season. Akha women take the opportunity to wear their traditional dress and ornaments. Some girls may have spent the year making their new dress and come out to show they are now of a marriageable age. Dancers pay respects to ancestors and giant swings are erected out of bamboo poles. It is exciting to watch the swinging! Not only do the girls swing, but anyone is welcome to partake- visitors included. I did not quite feel the stamina to try- maybe in my next life! But what a wonderful feeling of togetherness this festival brings…..
Akha villagers from Shan State in Myanmar also came to join the event.
It is difficult to know where the exact original Akha homeland was. Belonging to the Sino-Tibetan linguistic group and split into many sub-groups, the Akha have led nomadic lives for so long. Escaping persecution in China, they began migrating into Burma, Laos and northern Thailand in early 1900’s. Today approx 40,000 Akha live in northern Thailand, mostly in the hills of Chiang Rai. Although many have embraced Buddhism and Christianity, many Akha also maintain their animist traditions with a deep relationship to the land. Rituals practiced honor strong family ties. Every Akha male can recount his genealogy back over fifty years. This tradition of the “Akha Way” … however, like a road leading back to the past where the ancestors dwell, can also feels like a road forward into an uncertain future.
Although Thailand has been more of a safe haven, their lives remain a struggle for survival. Forced migration, alcohol and drugs have eroded into their cultural heritage. Young people naturally want to seek a new and perhaps better life outside of their villages. But even with making an effort to adapt into Thai culture, many lack education opportunity and easily fall into exploitation.
However it is always great to see those motivated with ambition manage to find their way into becoming successful entrepreneurs such as Lee of Akha Ama Coffee…. see link below!
Economic development and modernization should not require the abandonment of one’s own traditions and ethnic identity. Many wish to adapt their lifestyles and traditions to changing circumstances and globalization while looking for opportunities to improve their futures. The Akha simply wish to live freely without imposing their will on others, are happy to adapt into Thai culture while maintaining their own community ties. So events like the Akha Swing Festival strengthens their spirit and identity allowing them to share their culture with visitors. Hopefully this festival will keep on swinging!
Time of year: Exact dates are not announced well in advance but usually in late August/early September.
The Akha seem to communicated well with the spirits to help hold off the rain for the festival days.
Lodgings: I stayed overnight at the Akha Mud House on the way up Doi Mae Salong mountain at Mae Salong Noi village. A local Akha tour guide, Yohan has created simple but comfortable accommodations using mud walls and thatch roofs offering traditional family hospitality with very good food.
Find it on Booking.com
village of Mae Salong Noi.
Doi Mae Salong is also home to a Kuomintang Chinese community who fled the communist take over in China. Originally rebels using Burma and Thailand as their base to counter attack communists, they are now settled peacefully growing lots of tea along the mountain slopes.
Driving back to Chiang Mai, it is beautiful to stop at Wat ThaTon Temple with a view of the valley and the Mae Kok River. While looking out to the view during late afternoon with cooling breezes, a beautiful voice conducts the chanting from the temple. I could not help but feel free looking down on the world from here:
More about the Akha and Akha Ama Coffee- my favorite coffee in Chiang Mai!
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