Late for Nowhere

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Ringing in Shan New Year 2107

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Women arrive for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Shan New Year Festival on a misty morning in Kyaing Tong, eastern Shan State, Myanmar.

December mornings in Yangon can be pleasantly cool, and it’s not uncommon to see people wearing light jackets and even hats at that time of year. If you travel to Kyaing Tong in eastern Shan State during wintertime, the nighttime temperatures can get even colder, requiring bulky coats and even gloves, especially when traveling by motorcycle.

This was the case on the opening day of the Shan New Year Festival, which my wife Pauksi and I attended in Kyaing Tong from December 12 to 14, 2012. The event was the largest of its kind held for decades, and organizers sent out a call for Shan people throughout Myanmar and beyond – Thailand, China, the European Union, the United States and elsewhere – to come home and celebrate the arrival of Shan Year 2107.

With Kyaing Tong sitting at an elevation of 2700 feet above sea level, December 12 dawned cold and foggy. The opening ceremony for the New Year Festival was held a few miles west of town at a fairground along the Kyaing Tong-Taunggyi Road, adjacent to Kyaing Tong Degree College, and by 8am various groups of Shan people had started arriving in processions.


Shan dancer

Some of the arrivals were playing traditional long drums and cymbals, while others were waving flags and singing. The Shan are the second-biggest ethnic group in Myanmar, with numbers throughout the country estimated to range from 4-6 million. Many of the more than 30 Shan groups and subgroups were represented at the festival, including the Tai Khun, Tai Li, Tai Loi, Pa-O, Lahu, Akha, Wa and Enn. Other arriving groups were made up of members of organizations dedicated to promoting Shan culture and literature.

Each group was distinguished by the traditional costumes its members wore, from the purple and pink silk blouses and high, glittering headdresses of the Khamti Shan, to the heavy black tunics worn by the Enn. The latter appeared fresh off the farm, the men wearing rubber galoshes, the women in soil-stained sandals and sporting wildflowers in their pierced ears. They moved in a close group like a mysterious cloud that demanded attention, but smiling with betel-blackened teeth whenever a camera was pointed in their direction.


Ethnic Enn

After everyone had gathered on the field, the official opening occurred at the auspicious time of 9:09am, followed by short welcome speeches by organizers and Shan officials. Thus began the buildup to the arrival of the Year of the Small Snake, corresponding to the Year of the Snake in the Chinese zodiac. (The Shan Year of the Big Snake, or Naga, corresponds to the Chinese Year of the Dragon.)

With the festival officially underway, Pauksi and I set out to explore the fairgrounds. Across the road was the food area, where dozens of vendors had set up temporary restaurants in a vast, recently harvested paddy field. There were tents and pavilions with tables and chairs where festivalgoers could buy Shan noodles, sticky rice, barbecued meat and vegetables, and beverages ranging from soft drinks and energy drinks, to cans of Thai and Chinese beer.

The temperature rose as the day advanced, so we found a shady spot where a friendly woman from Taunngyi was making food. We ordered Shan noodles with super-fresh vegetables worthy of the fertile field in which the food area was located. The noodles were so enjoyable that we indulged in two bowls each.


Shan noodles with fresh bean sprouts and other veggies

Back on the other side of the road, we walked around the shopping area while Shan music, both traditional and contemporary, floated over the fairground. For sale were traditional Shan costumes, modern clothes from Thailand, toys, jewelry and Shan bags. There were lottery booths, games, and demonstrations of basket weaving, candle making and pottery making. Some ethnic groups, such as the Khamti Shan, had set up pavilions showcasing their traditional costumes and customs.


Pauksi posing with Shan festivalgoers

The Shan locals were extremely friendly and keen to engage with visitors from afar. In the first hour of the festival alone, I was approached by a number of smiling people, including a teenager from Kyaing Tong who was attending distant Mandalay University but had returned home to join the celebration, and an elderly man from a village near the Chinese border who sang the praises of Shan food (he was preaching to the converted) and spoke openly about the longstanding armed conflicts between the Shan people and Myanmar’s central government.

“We know all about guns and war,” he said with a laugh as he made shooting gestures with his hands. A number of the people we met had served in the Shan State Army and had spent months or years living in the jungle fighting the Myanmar army. Despite the county’s recent steps toward democracy, most of the Shan people I spoke with retained a low opinion of the government. Many of them had walked out of the fairground during the morning’s opening ceremony when a representative of the Myanmar army had taken the stage to say a few words.

Among the more eccentric people we ran into was a fellow who told us he was from Mindat in Chin State and who was riding his motorcycle around the country. He was decked out in a homemade vest and belt decorated with deer antlers, animal bones, oddly shaped stones, petrified wood, carvings, and one or two powerful slingshots made from bamboo. He had a small stone cup hanging from his belt, and told us that if we drank water from the vessel, we would gain the strength to beat anyone in a fight. As if to prove his martial prowess, he demonstrated some kung-fu moves by punching and kicking the air, and then broke into a unique jig that easily put passé K-pop Gangnam-style to shame. He let me try his vest on for size, which, although extremely heavy, was surprisingly comfortable.


Mindat Man and his homemade Vest of Many Strange Items

Leaving the Mindat man to his own strange devices, Pauksi and I set out on a quest for more food. We found a place along the highway under a big, shady tree where we drank coffee and ate some barbecue. The shop was run by a friendly family who owned the house in front of which the small restaurant was situated. They told us how they were adding another building to their property so they could run a boarding house for students at nearby Kyaing Tong Degree College. We continued wandering and sampling food here and there. At one place we ate chicken salad, and at another we indulged in sticky rice, steamed spicy fish, barbecued chicken and sour pork.

By now the sun was descending toward the horizon, the distant mountains were taking on a golden glow in the late afternoon light, and the daytime warmth was giving way to a slight chill.


Shan dancers preparing for their evening performance

At this point the volume of the recorded music from the main stage was turned up a notch. We came across a group of female dancers putting on makeup in preparation for their evening performance, and electric lights started coming on at the vending booths. More and more young Shan started arriving at the fairgrounds, dressed in their hippest clothes: For boys, the favored outfit of the season seemed to be black jeans and Converse All-Stars, while many of the girls sported short skirts and leather jackets.

The traditional Shan dance performances kicked off at 6:30pm, starting with the fan-tail kinnara and kinnari dance, accompanied by live drum and gong music. There were several other stages set up around the fairgrounds, each offering its own special category of performance. One venue featured bands playing Shan pop tunes, a mellow sort of music that might be described in the US as “adult contemporary”. There was another stage set up for all-night performances of tales from the life of the Buddha. Long before the curtain was raised, a huge crowd had gathered in front of the stage, each family staking its territory with bamboo mats and metal tiffin boxes full of the food that would get them through the night while they watched.   


Fan-tail kinnara and kinnari dance

But my favorite stage was the modest bamboo pavilion with the crackling PA system where local, mostly elderly, musicians played ethnic folk songs from the villages around Kyaing Tong. This was a unique style of music that can only be heard by traveling to eastern Shan State, and as I listened I sincerely hoped it had been recorded and passed down to younger generations, lest it disappear from the earth forever. Pauksi and I sat at a temporary restaurant near the bamboo stage, enjoying the folk music while eating even more barbecue and sipping cans of Thai beer. 

The second day of the New Year Festival featured a Shan culture and literature seminar, held at the Kyaing Tong City Hall. Nearly 20 short presentations were given by experts on a variety of topics, including the religious and cultural heritage of the Shan-related Ahom people in India, by Dr Sikhamori Gohain Borouah from Karmashree Hiteswar Saikia College in Assam, India; an anthropological study of Dr Josiah Nelson Cushing’s Shan-English dictionary, by Prof Takatani Michio from Hiroshima University in Japan; the history and culture of the Tai Leng, by Sai Kyaw Oo of the Tai Leng Literature and Cultural Association in Myitkyina; and the traditional methods used by the Khamti Shan for capturing wild elephants, by Yangon-based lawyer Sao Noi Than Sein.


Akha women

The last day of the festival was, of course, the most crowded and festive. Knowing we would be heading back to Yangon the following day, Pauksi and I once again indulged in as much delectable Shan food as we could fit into our stomachs, and we bought Shan souvenirs for ourselves and our friends back home. We also enjoyed another evening of stage performances, before the festival culminated with fireworks and the midnight release of a fleet of dazzling fire balloons, which rose into the darkness until they were mere points of light drifting across the Shan sky like animated constellations.

With the release of the balloons, the huge crowd – everyone bundled in their coats and hats against the chill of the Kyaing Tong night – let out a loud cheer: 2107, the Shan Year of the Small Snake, had arrived.


White teeth, black teeth


Written by latefornowhere

July 17, 2013 at 7:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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