The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Naga Ethnic Tribe Festival Dances with Disappointment
By ZIN MIN MAUNG / THE IRRAWADDY Friday, February 10, 2012

RANGOON—The annual new year festival of the Naga ethnic tribe left well-heeled tourists and local visitors suffering a string of disappointments due to tactless government interference.

“I'm not interested in going to the Naga festival again. The trip was very expensive, but the food was still very poor and the accommodation was very poor—toilets broke down,” said an American tourist who wished to remain anonymous.

Even visitors' minor expectations of visiting traditional villages were thwarted as they were stopped by the Burmese authorities. “We couldn't see villages beyond the festival,” added the tourist.

International travelers were charged a small fortune to visit the new year celebration, some shelling out US $1,500 per person to private travel agencies. Locals also found it expensive, spending around 500,000 kyat (around $600) for the trip to the hilly area of Sagaing Division, towards the Indian border in Burma's northwest.

The annual festival is held for two full days each January. The first day is set aside for rehearsing traditional dances, with the second day for the festival proper. Ethnic tribespeople strut their stuff in the afternoon and evening in front of a clamoring throng of spectators.

But unfortunately for tourists and locals alike, the first day's activities were canceled this year as ethnic tribal dancers had to welcome Burmese VIPs including Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo. He is the first high-ranking government dignitary to visit the festival, which was long neglected by previous administrations.

Naga men prepare for the ceremonial dance. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
But that was just the start of the disappointments. The afternoon dance of the second day was also severely curtailed due to a lengthy donation ceremony featuring the vice-president and his entourage of businessmen from more than 20 companies.

“They could only dance in the evening, so we couldn't take any good pictures because there was no light,” photographer Ko Moe told The Irrawaddy.

“The VIPs held a very long donation ceremony, giving cash and gifts to 400 ethnic Naga people individually. And then the chieftains of different clans of the tribe also gave gifts to the vice-president and businessmen one-by-one. It was extremely boring.”

Around 400 Naga tribespeople from 20 different villages gathered at the festival. But the audience was still left feeling like they had witnessed a crass publicity stunt.

“Another disappointment is that when the Naga people danced, the businessmen and officials also danced along with them,” Ko Moe said.

“I've not been to the Naga new year festival before. This is my first visit and I had only seen pictures taken at previous festivals. I had to spend 500,000 kyat on this trip. All has gone.”

Tourists told The Irrawaddy that they were left in the dark about what was happening and never received any information about the schedule apart from what time to turn up for lunch and dinner.

The only redeeming feature of the experience was the jeep drive through stunning scenery from Leshe to Hta-man-thi and the boat trip down the Chindwin River, they added.

But there was even more dismay to come. A vehicle ferrying tourists to the airport broke down on the return journey, so many missed their domestic flights back to Rangoon. Some managed find a guesthouse in Homelin while others were forced to spend the night camping on the sand bank of the Chindwin River.

“Many tourists also missed their international flights because they had to spend a night in Homelin, and it became yet another blow,” said Ko Moe.

The number of tourists visiting the festival increased from around 10 last January to more than 35 this year. There were over 100 visitors at the event seven years ago, but numbers have dwindled every year since, claims a photographer who visits regularly.

“During my last visit in 2009, I discovered that many ethnic men no longer enjoy their annual traditional festival. They find it very tiring to make the journey every year,” he said.

“That year they were forced to stand for nearly two hours in the blazing sunshine to take part in the opening ceremony of a library in the town. They were also forced to plant Kyatsu (Jetropacarcus) trees in a ceremony organized by the Union Solidarity and Development Association.”

Carrying dry rations on their backs, Naga men and women from far away villages have to trek up and down the mountainous region to reach the festival. The event alternates between Lashe and Lahe towns each year, and some must spend four to five days reaching the hosting place.

“They have to shelter at houses and cook food by themselves as they wait to participate in their own annual festival,” explained a local man.

“The traditional festival is an important tourist attraction in Myanmar. However, the authorities do not provide any assistance to the ethnic people.”

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |