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Akha ring in New Year with Kengtung festival

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Helmets are mandatory for anyone riding a motorcycle in Kengtung in eastern Shan State, but traffic police were willing to make an exception for the ethnic Akha women who sported traditional metallic headgear as they streamed into the town’s football stadium on December 28.

They had traveled from outlying villages to attend the 2015 Akha New Year Festival, which celebrated the arrival of the Year of Sheep on the Akha calendar.

Shan State Chief Minister Sao Aung Myat was on hand in the morning to cut the tinsel, release the balloons and deliver the standard government lecture about unity among Myanmar’s ethnic groups.

The festivities then ground to a virtual standstill during the heat of day, but when night fell the stadium was crammed with vendors selling sticky rice and grilled meat, children going loco in the dragon-shaped bounce house, and young men laying down wads of cash in fruitless efforts to master tricky ring-toss and darts games.

On the main stage, pop music blared as women in Akha dress performed dances whose movements borrowed heavily from Kachin, Kayin and other ethnic styles.

Far more interesting was the secondary stage, which featured eerily beautiful traditional Akha singing.

Near this stage, a group of dancers circulated around a flagpole, around which a wooden pathway that had been laid on the ground. As they moved, many of them rhythmically clacked bamboo sticks on the wood, while others rang gongs.

While many Akha attended the celebration in Kengtung, many others stayed away because of the expense of traveling to the city.

“If they don’t have relatives they can stay with while in Kengtung, most of them can’t afford to come to the festival,” said Shan tour guide Matt. He explained that the villages compensated by holding their own individual New Year festivals around January 2 and 3.

The Akha are the second-biggest ethnic group in the Kengtung area, accounting for about 10 percent of the regional population. The biggest group, the Shan, constitute 80 percent of the population.











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