Assembling the festival swing is a much looked after activity of the Akha tribe. As you can see in the photo, the men sit high on top of the skeleton frame. Each has tied a strip of cloth to stand on while they use their arms and hands to twist and wrap the vines around the joints of the frame. This festival day is in Baan Mhork Jaam village about 11 kilometers northeast of Thatorn subdistrict of Mae Ai district. This village and its surrounding areas are the community for the majority of Akha tribes, followed by Karen tribe and Thai Yai (Shan) ethnic groups from the present-day Burma.
A crowd of 50 has gathered to watch the building of the swing. Mostly Akha villagers make up the crowd but there are Westerners and the media group invited by the Royal Project and MCOT (The Mass Communication Organization of Thailand). The narrow but paved street of Baan Huay Sala is usually a quiet place but today is an exception. Every so often men come through the crowd carrying on their shoulders about 6 young trees they have felled for construction in another area. Knowing hands strip and reduce the vines to thinner strips for three men who gather the vines in their hands and start plaiting making a strong rope for the swinging.
Much happy laughing is heard all around. Every age is wearing the colorful Akha costumes. Also seen and admired are very fancy head dresses that were certainly made for showing off on this festival to celebrate "Women's Day". The women are invited to swing as high as they can to bring good luck and bountiful harvest to the village. The event does not exclude men from swinging, whose performances really draw gasps of oohs and aahs from the cheering crowd. This event was well attended by Akha residents from northern Thailand after hearing of the event on Akha radio program. Most of the Akha who travelled from Payao and Chiangrai had already returned to their homes on this third day of the festival.
According to Ah Teua, the 25 year old son of the village headman, the Akha have 12 festivals throughout the year and each festival requires the swing for soaring the spirit toward heaven. The village is 25 years old and the population is 1,000 residents living in 170 households. The village school from kindergarten until 6th grade for the young children is close by. Junior and High school students must travel away from the village. Mostly the children's education stops at the 9th grade. A few may continue to study Chinese language helpful for trading in the border area but the majority find jobs to help parents with expenses and to look after themselves.
Ah Teua sells handicrafts from a stall in the Chiangmai Night bazaar. He has saved enough money to buy a video camera at his father's request to record the festivals and culture of the villagers. Even Ah Teua has to admit he is not familiar with much of the culture because he lived away from the village in the city for some years already though he does visit for a short time each month.
Ah Teua also purchased a computer and within the past year he has taught himself how to reproduce his documentary CDs. He's happy to give interested persons the CDs about the Akha festivals. He has also put a great deal of thought in the creation of an Akha dictionary and grammar book. Although Missionaries have published an Akha dictionary, Ah Teua feels there are some tones that non-Akha speaking people cannot hear or know in the 34 character language.
Four charming teenage girls in the crowd volunteered to sing a song in Akha language. The lyrics were about being a good child with the essential qualities of respect for seniors, diligence, patience and caring for nature. When I asked to hear a lullaby, I was informed only women of 40 to 50 years of age sang those songs. The festival continued into the night with a music happening when all types of folk instruments and singers put on wonderful entertainment. Let's hope that next year, we are able to stay a few days more in this amazing unseen part of Chiangmai province.
The Mhork Jaam Center is known for temperate vegetables, plants and fruit trees growing by residents in the area, who consist of eight ethnic groups. They include Muser, Shan, Tai Lue, Karen, Akha, Tai Saem, Tai Khoen and ethnic northern Thais. They are grateful to The Royal Project Foundation that has provided knowledge to the villagers on how to raise rabbits, mushrooms, passion fruit, Taiwan mango and watermelon agriculture products and many weaving techniques.
Within Mhork Jaam area tourists can observe gem-cutting and the Shans' distinctive colorful woven textiles are sold as souvenirs. From there, visit Wat Mai Mhork Jaam and observe its Myanmar-influenced architecture. Handicraft enthusiasts will certainly like the activities of the Shan textiles and woven cloth products, such as skirts, cloth bags and shawls. They can also visit the Saa Paper Handicraft Group of Baan Mai Mhork Jaam, where the Sa paper production process can be observed and the paper products are on sale.
The community of Baan Mhork Jaan is growing fast, Baan Wang Pbai is a part of this same area but further north. Tourists observe the traditional preparation of the Konjac tuber, a process which involves boiling, simmering, pounding, kneading and cutting into strips. It is cooked with herbs and served in various ways such as Spicy Salad of Konjac Strips, Paad Thai and other dishes. If you are in this area, you can taste the Konjac food of the Tai Lue and enjoy their ethnic performances as well.
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