Isolated in the rugged mountains of war-raved Myanmar Animist tribes still hold animal sacrificing and sensual ‘Flocking’ festivals. As narrow paths open into the region travelers are meeting the children of Angels.
Set in the vast hills along the Thai Border, the villages of Kengtung have been shut away from outside influence by a bitter anti-government insurgency that until 1993 tore through Eastern Myanmar’s Shan State.
In the self-administered region of Kengtung a peace treaty holds, albeit tentatively, providing a window of opportunity to meet the extraordinary Animist communities.
Deep in the mountains villages follow a spiritual belief system that includes animal sacrifices, and hold ‘flocking’ or fertility festivals that raise the eyebrows of even the most liberal-minded travelers.
A motorbike rider roars up the steep rocky road shattering the silence. His pillion casually holds a long, incredibly large, front loader gun pointed over his shoulder.
With every shot, the gun needs to be reloaded with homemade Black Powder, yet Ann men are known as magnificent hunters.
As the motorbike disappears through the wooden houses, a pig groans as it’s chased away by a grumpy chicken.
An inconspicuous temple is central to the village, with two enormous stone phallic symbols center-stage. They’re an altar to the spirits that have guided this village since the 9th century.
Annually in the communal hut the village holds a ‘Fertility Ceremony’. A musician in the middle of the room divides gender, until a young man stands singing the erotic ‘Flocking Song’.
A lady responds, flirting happily, throwing out a tease here or there. With the moon high in the sky, the very young and old slip off to bed, the world becomes undivided, bodies, a naked web in an orgy. I wasn’t invited.
Sai, Myanmar Shalom Guide, sits with the Shaman’s wife on her veranda that’s buzzing with children. “Paternity isn’t an issue here”. Every child is looked after by every grandmother; men teach men, women teach women, children care for whoever.
Everyone looks around, “It’s Mr Shaman”, whispers Sai. His broad muscular shoulders hold the machete that’s tucked away on his belt as he stomps up the stairs to share with the kids a bowl of peanuts, then takes a wooden stool to sit with Sai, this man is a true charmer.
Now in his 60’s the Shaman is the village’s spiritual leader even though the real authority of the village comes from ancestors.
On festival days, under the watchful eye of villagers, the Shaman begins his work as a Medium. The tempo increases as he begins to move from this world into the ancestors. He begins to speak in tongue to receive instructions that the villages will follow to the letter. Maybe a chicken, maybe three pigs must die.
AKHA and AKHU Tribe
Since the 15th century the AKha have migrated from Mongolia, through Tibet down the Mekong River valley to Southern China and Myanmar. Still today they maintain ancient traditions, some charming, others confronting.
Animists delivered harsh justice. Children were not immune from infanticide, particularly those with a disability, or a twin; the child was deemed evil.
For twins, villagers had no idea which one was possessed so both babies were placed under the village gate.
Men and women would spit on the children, stones thrown at the delicate bodies until their life faded.
In the mid-1800s Christian missionaries trekked with the British colonial army challenging Animists beliefs and infanticide was cast aside decades later.
Despite the church’s influence many villages continue to practice Animist traditions.
When a couple doesn’t have a son, after three children, they select another wife. While rare, the practice still exists, even under the eyes of the local Priest.
Traditional communal life goes on as before. In stilted wooden homes a great wall separates gender, dividing men and boys, from women and girls.
When a woman needs pampering, she places a stick through the slatted floor where her bed rests, a code for her man to meet in the ‘love house’.
Above the fields on the mountain rests the small bamboo ‘Love House’. There are no walls, just a floor, and a long thatched roof. It’s here during a quiet moment that couples meet, for fun, for pleasure, for the future.
While the AKha are dominant in the region there are breakaway tribes, in Kengtung it’s the AKhu.
The AKhu women are known for smoking long bamboo pipes and whose garments are black including headdresses. In contrast to the traditional costume of Akha, women wear headdresses of silver metal, with balls framing their face.
Legend has it that greed split the AKha. An elder son worked tirelessly on his parent’s field, while the younger relentlessly demanded an inheritance from his parents far greater than the other.
‘No’ the parents insisted each son would receive half. Years went by and his parents grew frail as did the intensity of his demands. In a fury he killed his parents high in the hills, unaware his crime was witnessed.
For justice he was sent away and called in the AKha language, ‘AKhu’ or ‘Dog’ while his brother’s tribe remains Akha.
The afternoon sun reflects off the green tips of the rice paddocks that cover the ground to the faraway hills. Behind muddy walls dividing the paddies a hat pops up in the field. Working in her vegetable garden is sixty-six-year-old Mae San Sip.
Her gardening clothes are the traditional red dress and two stunning silver belts marking her tribe and as an Angel’s child.
As a young girl her mother passed on to her the thick silver belts. Worn loosely around her waist from dawn till dusk, in the garden, and during cooking they’re worn with pride.
Legend states that Angels came to play in a jungle lake. Through the woods a Prince, out hunting, came across the girls wearing nothing but golden lace dresses.
It was a sight directed from heaven; he fell instantly in love.
Expecting a reciprocal response, he stumbled through the water, but the angels ran in horror.
The Prince returned home determined to make an angel his wife. Every day he prepared a trap of the finest food and a magic rattan ring that he’d throw around an angel’s waist.
While hiding in the bush the angels returned to play.
With a flick he threw the belt high in the air to land on beauty he’d seen just once before.
Mae San Sip’s village is buzzing with the children of angels.
The Palaung women wear traditional clothing while working on verandas of wooden homes that weave through the dusty streets. Sai holding a bunch of garlic, chats to the children and the women, but they tell him to keep away. They are nervous, does Sai have Covid-19? Even here. lost in the mountains, messages seep through.