After attending the rice planting ceremonies a few months back, I knew I wanted to make a return to the Akha Village for the New Year Swing Festival that would take place approximately 120 days later. Near the end of August, most of the boys Urban Light serves made the journey north to be with family and celebrate this age-old tradition of swing building and dance. Urban Light’s Outreach Worker, who is also my Thailand brother and best mate, Fame, was kind enough to invite myself and another Urban Light volunteer, Marissa, into his family’s home for the weekend’s festivities.
On my previous visit, the fields were bare and freshly burned from the slash and burn style of agriculture that is still very prevalent there. The burning of fields is considerable reason not to travel in Northern Thailand during late February through April, as resulting clouds of smoke and debris linger in the air. The climb to the top of the mountain where Fame’s family’s rice field rests was much more of a site to behold, and a considerably tougher trek, with lush, green, and chest tall rice grasses forcing us to take care with every step. Though the journey to the top of the mountain is worth it for the view, we were there to collect cantaloupe and cucumbers that had been planted the same time as the rice. Vines scattered through the field, and we all were excited to come across a ripe melon or cucumber— they were a bit tough to find in the huge field.
The Swing Festival is meant to bring good fortune on the current rice harvest, as last year’s supply is more than likely gone or dwindling. It also seems to be a coming of age event, where girls who have worked hard all year long making traditional dress wear these clothes for the first time, or add to costumes of years past, and boys actively participate in different roles surrounding the swing building.
I could sense a strong energy in the village with everyone returning home— the smiles on everyone’s faces as they connected with old friends and family they had not seen for some time. In the west, I would compare the migration of teenagers and young adults back home to holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. The boys joined each other on the back of motorbikes, visiting friends from across the village while all the girls gathered to rehearse their dance performances or sew the final details on the beautiful clothing that would be worn a few days later. Fame explained that, unlike western culture, Akha girls and guys typically do not hang out together or socialize outside of school. I noticed at nighttime several groups of guys drinking beers together and not a single girl join, besides the brief conversation that took place with a passerby.
Along with practicing dance and preparing details for the upcoming ceremonies the day before swing building, all the youth in the village were busy playing organized soccer and volleyball tournaments in the schoolyard. It was a lot of fun watching the boys who regularly visit our center participate in these games and interact with their childhood friends— some of the biggest smiles I’ve seen on many of their faces. To see them home was a joy.
The cool air the rainy season brings is far more evident north near the Burmese border where this village sat. Even without air conditioning, falling asleep was not an issue, as is often the case in Chiang Mai. On this trip, I was very happy to have the opportunity to experience some of the surrounding attractions: Thanaton Orchard and Wat Thaton. The views were incredible and a glimpse away from the urban Thailand I’ve grown accustomed to. Bangkok and Chiang Mai cannot compare to flowing rivers, thriving farmland, and rainstorms peaking over the mountaintops.
Wat Thaton and the drive to it:
Early Monday morning brought the biggest and most anticipated event of the weeklong festival: swing building. A male from each family in the village is required to participate in the process, which includes everything from gathering trees in the jungle, clearing last year’s swing, or the actual swing building (the binding of the swing is reserved for elders in the village— it is an honor and privilege to do so, and requires an enormous amount of balance and skill from what I saw).
Dressed in long sleeves, pants, and boots (I clearly missed the memo to pack my winter clothes), the men and boys gathered at the village’s highest point and location where the swing is annually built. Last year’s swing remained in place, untouched since its use in 2012’s festival. The swing is considered sacred and cannot be used or touched outside of the new year’s swing celebration. Everyone was required to sign in or otherwise face a fine. Once all families were represented, we were split up into groups with a few of the village elders staying behind to dismantle the overgrown swing from last year and clear the ground for this year’s. The village was ambitious and planned on building two swings for this festival requiring double the supplies of a normal swing building morning.
I felt extremely privileged to be allowed to join the Akha men and boys as we climbed the mountain into the hot and humid jungles surrounding the village. Earlier that morning, several elders scouted out and cut several trees that we were headed towards. Sweat poured off of all of our heads, and I could only imagine the volume we would be sweating once we began the trek back down the mountain with trees on our shoulders. Fortunately, there was a spring that everyone felt more than comfortable drinking from. I declined the offer to fill my bottle again; the last thing I needed was a strong stomach bug from Thailand’s jungles. At least everyone else stayed hydrated!
The road/path we took into the jungle was made by the military for strategic purposes along the Burmese border—- definitely not a road I would want to be on in a large military vehicle. The attempts to combat the current extensive and inevitable future erosion were minimal and drainage systems were in disrepair. Regardless, the road made the trek easier to navigate than it otherwise would have been.
When we arrived near the top of the mountain, we stopped and moved off the road to gather the trees that had been cut hours earlier. While several men descended into the jungle, a group began making bamboo rope that would be used later to bind the swing. Not wanting to be the “farang with camera on a site seeing tour”, I passed my camera off to a friend from Urban Light and helped carry one of the large trees down the mountain. My height apparently made the majority of the tree’s weight go onto my shoulders. The men and boys all laughed as the tree lifted off of theirs.
Fame later told me that the villagers were impressed that I helped them as most farangs only stop by to take pictures and leave. Since I knew there is great suspicion from the locals that farangs will use the photos taken in the village to make lots of money, I was always sure to ask before taking photos (something all travelers should do) and convey respect for culture at all times. Getting my hands dirty and helping out in this tradition was a truly amazing experience and apparently dispelled a lot of my perceived intentions—- and how often would I have the chance to help build an Akha swing after all?
The trek down the mountain:
We made it back to the village about an hour and a half after first setting off into the jungle. Holes were dug and ready to go for the new swing base, with offerings having already been placed inside to thank the spirits of the earth. Throughout the week, the Swing Festival incorporates many of traditional animist beliefs, using blessed water from a specific spring and using it in various ceremonies.
I could not believe the incredible balance the men building the swings had. Two men spent over an hour putting it together, all while dangling nearly 20 feet in the air— I don’t think either even broke a sweat.
After eating some traditional Akha food, we returned to find the swing finished. One of Urban Light’s boys had the privilege to be the first to swing (his father is one of the leaders of the village and the first swing is always given to families in high leadership roles). We watched young boys, old men, girls, fathers of Urban Light boys, and our new friends in the village all take to the swing— Marissa and I, the visiting farang, were even invited to try. The smiles were continuous, and the overall joy surrounding the swing is something I won’t soon forget.
As we left the village for Chiang Mai, the second swing was almost complete and rehearsals for the night’s dancing festivities were in full swing. Fathers are sons were building swings in their backyards as preparations for the peak of the swing festival were winding down. Dancing lasts the entire night, something I will try to be there for next time!
Watching this tradition unfold was a true highlight of my time in Thailand and I cannot wait until my next visit up North.
Some things I missed at the festival:
(Thanks to Fabian Blandford)
All photos Copyright(c) Elliot Glotfelty
Just had an interesting conversation with your cousin Emma about how this writing could be used in a classroom – especially with the videos and pictures. Not only would it make language arts a lot more fun but it would also promote appreciation of different cultures and traditions- Do you mind if we use it?
Go for it! =) If you need anything else, please let me know!
Such an interesting experience to read about! Thanks for taking the time to share all of this! Love, aunt Lynn
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