My NGO co-worker invited Lauren and me to come to his village this weekend to celebrate Kay Htoe Bo, the most important Kayah festival of the year. Kay Htoe Bo celebrates the goddess of creation and the ceremonies revolve around a special pole. In the Kayah religion:
The universe (the earth, the stars and the moon) are linked together by a web. At creation earth still lacked density and the land and the water were liquid so the God planted a small post in the ground. As the post grew the earth also grew into seven outer and inner layers and it became firm. The post was named: “The means of formation of earth” – the Kay Htoe Boe in Kayan.
The festival was three days long and started on Saturday. On the first day, the villagers carved and prepared a new pole to commemorate God’s Kay Htoe Boe from the Eugenia tree, which they believe to be the first tree ever created. They also started making their rice wine, another key component of Kay Htoe Bo; each household has their own recipe. My co-worker told us to come out Sunday afternoon for some preliminary festivities, then spend the night and witness the main event on Monday morning.
Our trip to the Kayan village involved a 9K bike ride out of town, followed by a 20 minute longboat ride down the river. We arrived around 4PM, and the village was still pretty quiet. My co-worker brought us some of his family’s rice wine, and we taught him the Nepalese card game while his sisters Mu Wai and Mu Do (all Kayan women’s names begin with “Mu”) prepared dinner.
After dinner, we were taken to our guesthouse on the top of “flower mountain.” In the rainy season it is supposedly blanketed with flowers, but now they just call it “dry mountain.” It was a cute little bamboo bungalow with a mattress and mosquito net inside, similar to our Khmu village digs on our Tiger Trek in Laos.
Next to the hilltop where the poles live, there was a stage and lots of plastic seating. A new pole is put up every year, so you can tell how long a Kayan village has been around by counting the poles (and then add one since they don’t raise a pole the first year). The evening activities alternated between dancing around the old poles, and Kayan karaoke/live music jamming by the villagers.
Monday we arose at 6:15AM to the songs of the village roosters. Lauren had to take off at 7AM to conduct a training for her NGO, and I joined Mu Re and Mu Do for breakfast. I got to help them prepare dinner, mashing lemongrass in a mortar and pestle, and chopping up kaffir lime leaves using the techniques I learned in Chiang Mai. They were then mixed with shallots and chilies into a stuffing for the evening’s chicken that was to be boiled in a pot. I told Mu Re about our alternative poultry cooking technique, trash can turkey from Tennessee, and she liked the idea a lot.
At 8:15AM it was time for the main event – the raising of the pole. The villagers dress up in ceremonial garb, carry the pole around, then use large crossed bamboo staffs to lift up the pole. Tied to the pole is a smaller piece of bamboo that has 3 ropes attached to the top, used to steady the pole. They secure the base, then untie the supporting bamboo. Attached to the pole is a white sheet representing the stairway to heaven. Finally, a chicken is sacrificed, one of its tail feathers is put into the pole, and they read a fortune for the village from its bones. With the future of the village secured (multiple chickens are sacrificed if necessary to get a good fortune), the villagers celebrate by dancing around the pole for an hour or so.
I captured the raising of the pole on video, though I forgot that when I turn my camera in video mode, the video itself doesn’t correct the orientation.
After the local villagers finished their dancing, representatives from two nearby villages and one village from just inside the Burmese border took their turns marching up the hill and dancing around the poles. Since only men were allowed to participate in the ceremony on the hill, the women (those who weren’t cooking) waited at the entrance to the ceremony with buckets of water to splash the men as they exited.
To conclude the ceremony, all four villages joined together in one large procession around the village. Afterwards, I was invited into just about every house on the block for lunch and rice wine. I ate and drank my fill, and then did a little shopping. I avoided the run-of-the-mill, made in China trinkets, and acquired a few scarves that were handspun by the villagers. Finally it was time to be on my way along the river. It was a great experience, and doubly fun to be one of only four farang in attendance.