Fire breathing, dragon boat racing and, er, splashing water: the Dai New Year festival in Xishuangbanna

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April 13th 2009
Published: April 29th 2009
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"A long time ago there was a king, and he had twelve daughters. He was a devil and could not be killed in any way and used to kill his people indiscriminately. One day his daughters persuaded him to hold a feast and, when he was quite drunk, one of them said to him, 'Oh father, you are such a great king, no one can hurt you.'

The devil king was quite drunk and replied, 'It's true I am a great king, but there is one certain place where if someone cuts me I will die immediately.'

That night, while he lay asleep, one of his daughters cut him in the place he had showed and, to her surprise, his head fell clean off. Storms, floods and fire ravaged the land for a long time until one of the daughters realised that if she held his head off the ground the trouble ceased. So from then on, the twelve of them took it in turns to hold his head for a month each. Today, the Dai New Year, marks the anniversary of his death."

The story was told to us by a half-Dai restaurant owner in the town of Jinghong, the largest settlement in Xishuangbanna. The Dai minority group made up such a large proportion of Xishuangbanna's population, and the festival was such an important event, that the usually tranquil streets were overflowing with people and the hotels were charging between four and ten times their usual price. Fortunately for us the kindly restaurant owner had found a friend with a spare room willing to put us up.

In the afternoon of the first day of the festival we found ourselves on the banks of the Mekong river. They were overflowing with people even more than the streets and were densely covered with hastily-erected eateries, stalls selling all manner of festive toys and souvenirs, coconut shies, hoopla, air gun shooting games and plenty more. Among all the features that can be found at large festivals the world over were a few more interesting events specific to the locality, such as traditional dancing and Dai fireworks shot out of bamboo shoots.

None of that, however, was the reason we had come to the river banks. We were here to watch the Dragon Boat Racing, whatever that was. Having fought our way through the noodle stalls, the clouds of smoke from the barbecues selling miniature kebabs and the canvas-roofed tea houses, we had to take off our shoes and socks and wade out some distance into the river before we could see anything apart from other people's backs. Far across on the other side we could just see the Dragon Boats. They appeared to be ridiculously long and thin, the width of a kayak but with perhaps fifty rowers seated one in front of the other and a handful standing up at the back and front. Some boats were painted, others were plain, and all the rowers in each boat were wearing matching costumes.

The races were over almost as soon as they had begun. With so many people rowing, the boats flew across the river to our side in a matter of seconds. They did it one by one, which made me wonder just how, in the past, anyone had been able to accurately judge the winners of this spectacularly short race.

The next day was the minorities' parade when the four central streets were closed to traffic and pedestrians, representatives of every ethnic minority in the area, not just the Dai, using the space to show off their traditional music, dancing and costumes.

It must be said that the atmosphere was not quite that of a hispanic street festival. There was little singing, dancing, shouting, frolicking or drinking among the spectators; instead they stood relatively motionless in a line behind a barrier at the edge of the pavement. The rare few who attempted to cross the barriers, usually for the purpose of dashing to the other side of the street or taking a photo, were efficiently kept at bay by a multitude of police officers, many of them zimming around stood on tiny, two-wheeled, electrically powered platforms that held them a few inches above the level of the road and were controlled by a long lever that protruded from the front up to chest level.

Among the paraders were a variety of costumes and headresses which, while pretty, were nothing compared to what we would see people wearing during everyday life at markets and villages in other parts of Yunnan over the coming week. The music to which the majority of ethnic groups danced, and the dances themselves, were fairly simple and repetitive: the music mostly cymbols and drum beats, the dancing mostly stiff movements following the beat of the music. But then, to be fair, if you asked an English village, youth, oldies and all, to perform one of its traditional dances in a street festival, it would either not be able to provide or the result would be infinitely worse than what we saw in Jinghong. In fact I think it's possible I'm being unfair to the minorities of Xishuangbanna; the last street festival I attended was am almost insanely colourful and frenetic one in the Philippines and perhaps I'm judging everything in comparison to that one. When looked at in a different light, the music and the dancing of the ethnic minorities on the streets of Jinghong had a certain elegance that had been completely absent from the nonetheless spectacular festival in the Philippines. The music and costumes used here today were still very much a part of daily life while at the same time harking back to traditions that had lasted centuries if not millenia; this bridge between past and present, tradition and modernity, lent the event a special meaning that made it more than just an excuse for a party.

The party for the ethnic minorities did begin, however, after the parade was all over. I found myself near a group of long-haired, dark-skinned men dressed in what looked like judo outfits and hanging around a ten-foot tall drum. One of them took out some plastic bottles full of a clear liquid which he proceeded to pour into shot glasses cut from bamboo shoots before knocking them back with his companions with such drama that I was tempted to think they were doing it for the benefit of the crowds. Noticing me taking photos of them they then decided to invite me over and before I knew it I was being passed shot after shot of this highly alcoholic beverage and even having my camera taken off me to be photographed doing it. None of the spectators lining the streets had taken any notice of this until one of the performers photographed me with my camera, at which point almost everyone in the crowd was rushing over to have their picture taken while pretending to knock back a bamboo shoot.

The third day was to be the day when people ran riot in the streets throwing water over each other, aiming their attacks particularly at any tourists foolish enough to get in their way. This, combined with the fact that we had lots that we still wanted to see in South West China, prompted us to leave town on a sleeper bus at the end of the festival's second day.

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14th September 2009

Hotel in Jinghong
Thank you for this very interesting article. I expect to go to Jinghong next april for that festival, may be you know about a hotel i could go and if I can make a reservation from France. May be you know exactly the dates of next festival. thank you for answer Jean-Louis
14th September 2009

hotel in Jinhong
Thank you for the text and beautiful photos. I expect to go to jJinghong next april. Do you know a hotel and restaurant where I could go and if I can make a reservation from France. Do you know the dates of next water festival in April? Thank you for the answer Jean-Louis Lavigne
24th June 2011

fire boat
Before launching a boat in sea one must take safety measures that he can protect the sudden fire incident. Fire boats are necessary to prevent this. fire boat

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