“The merry dance, beer in hand, in the grave choked hillside cemetery alongside marimba playing musicians.”
While visiting Todos Santos in the remote highlands of Guatemala during the festivities of El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints’ Day on November 1, I found these locals celebrating in the village cemetery.
Men clad in the unique village uniform danced unsteadily, beer in hand, among the tightly packed, painted graves to the typical Guatemalan soundtrack of marimba.
Daily evening performances of Chinese opera are a popular part of the Chinese New Year entertainment in Nakhon Sawan. Heavily made-up, elaborately clad performers strut and rant in lilting tones on gaudy, makeshift stages erected along the riverside.
Following are some Chinese opera photos taken during my visit to Nakhon Sawan this year during Chinese New Year.
Check out part 1 of Chinese New Year in Nakhon Sawan for a taster of the atmosphere and other events.
Back in Thailand after ten years away, I decided to revisit Nakhon Sawan (my home for three years before moving to Phuket) during Chinese New Year.
Famous for its large Thai-Chinese population and flamboyant Chinese New Year celebrations Nakhon Sawan attracts tens of thousands of national and international visitors every year during the festival.
The largest city in the central plains, governing the identically named province, Nakhon Sawan (meaning Heavenly City) is known locally as Pak Nam Pho. Here the Ping and Nan rivers merge forming the Chao Phraya that runs through the country’s capital Bangkok.
Spanning over 12 days, this year from 3-14 February, Chinese New Year banners, crimson decorations and glowing Chinese lanterns adorn streets, shopping malls, businesses and homes. Chinese opera, food stalls, temple fairs and open-air concerts and shows saturate the senses.
Here’s a taster of the atmosphere and some of the events running up to the parades on the 12-13 February.
International Living recently published my article about a unique Guatemalan horse race with drunken Mayan jockeys. Below is my original submission with many more than the one photo published with the article.
My childhood dream was to explore the world, treading in the footsteps of past explorers while discovering the wonders of its landscapes and people for myself.
After many long stints of traveling and returning to save for my next trip I qualified as an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher and spent over five incredible years teaching in Thailand before hitting Latin American soil.
AWAI travel writing and photography workshops opened doors to an entirely new world and I’m now based in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala living my dream as a travel writer and photographer.
Last year I headed with a friend to the remote village of Todos Santos just over 8000 feet above sea level in the northern Guatemalan highlands.
We went to witness the famous annual festival with inebriated, traditionally clad locals racing horses on All Saints’ Day on November 1. All-male jockeys, hardy residents of Todos Santos, spend a sleepless night beforehand ritualistically drinking themselves into an alcohol-induced stupor.
The following morning, families dress riders in the unique traditional uniform worn every day by male villagers, tough red and white striped pants with thick blue and white striped shirts trimmed with embroidered collar and cuffs.
For the race, they wear a ceremonial red sash and their everyday straw hat brims with streaming feathers and multi-colored ribbons symbolizing the sacred quetzal bird.
Helped onto the back of a horse, rented especially for the day, these inebriated jockeys set off unsteadily in a muddle of flying legs and flailing arms, whooping and singing loudly, pounding point to point along a short dirt track in the cold mist and drizzle.
With no official start or finish, riders stop briefly at each end of the track to snatch another mouthful of booze before wildly dashing back in a tattered group, hooves throwing clods of dirt in the faces of onlookers.
Some tumble in the mud but are quickly dragged out of the path of oncoming steaming, rain-soaked steeds by helpers along the track. The chaos continues for seven hours, stopping only for lunch, participants joining and leaving (usually when they’re too drunk to stay on the horse) the event as they wish.
Spectators are mainly colorfully clad locals from Todos Santos and surrounding settlements with a handful of outsiders. Crowding against the wooden railings or scrambling up a steep grassy incline for a birds-eye view, neither cheering nor clapping, each village’s distinctive costume clashes against its neighbor.
Like no other horse race I’ve seen, Skach Koyl as it’s called in mam the local Mayan language, is more a rite of passage than a competition as there’s no winner. Its roots are vague but most agree it began around the time of the Spanish conquest when the Spaniards introduced horses to the region.
Mayan tradition expects village men to participate four times in a lifetime. The final year on the last mad dash along the track the jockey brandishes a live chicken triumphantly as he rides. Later that night he eats the entire bird alone to signify the end of his obligation.
The festival continues as families pay their respects to departed loved ones, praying and decorating tombs with gaudy garlands. The merry dance, beer in hand, in the grave choked hillside cemetery alongside marimba playing musicians.
The intrigue of new people and places, customs, foods and festivals not only quenches my lust for travel and adventure but provides an income too. Trips like these can pay for themselves with a little effort in the field to take photos and gather fodder for articles. But when you’re living your dream, doing what you love, you can hardly call it work!
Horse-head fiddle or morin khuur
Varied local legends tell of a man’s love for his dead horse breathing life into Mongolia’s national musical instrument, the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. Now its distinctive violin-like sounds permeate Mongolian culture and resonate throughout the country.
Historically a nomadic nation, the horse still plays a beloved and integral role in life on the steppe and many Mongolian songs and poems extol its virtues. (See Nadaam Festival – Horse Racing on the Steppe.)
The scroll of this prized, traditional instrument is carved into the shape of a horse’s head while the bow and two strings are made from horsetail hair.
More than a musical instrument to the nomads, the morin khuur remains an intrinsic part of everyday life and rituals, accompanying songs, dances, ceremonies, folkloric tales and daily tasks including the taming of animals.
“Weeping Camel” is an insightful documentary into the nomadic world, showing Mongolian herders playing the morin khuur whilst serenading a mother camel to entice her back to her rejected foal.
Last year my brother Mike married his bride Anna in her motherland, Mongolia and during the traditional part of the wedding ceremony, a musician played the morin khuur. (See Getting Hitched in Mongolia – Local Flavor.)
During the wedding reception, Anna’s cousin Khongor Khuurch gave an extraordinary performance of throat singing known as khoomei while playing the morin khuur. A famous musician in Mongolia, his music videos air on national TV channels. (See also here.)
After Khongor finished performing, his father, Anna’s uncle Toroo, presented an honored Mike and Anna with the morin khuur as a very special and prestigious wedding gift.
Sacred in every Mongolian home, the people believe a ger with a morin khuur is complete whereas one without is like a widow. A ger is a traditional Mongolian felt, tent-like dwelling that is home to a huge part of the nation’s population both in the countryside and the city.
Throat singing or khoomei
Mongolia is the most renowned country for khoomei (can be spelt differently), the ancient and otherworldly art of throat singing, although it is an esteemed musical tradition in neighboring areas too.
While in Kharkhorin, now a ramshackle town but once the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, an old musician called B. Baasandorj visited our ger camp bringing with him an array of traditional instruments.
He indulged us to a mellow evening of melodious playing and khoomei, a welcome treat after spending two weeks of long days on the road out on the Mongolian steppe, or more accurately on bumpy tracks and completely off-road.
To hear the unique sounds of khoomei and learn more check out the following:
- video of a Mongolian musician’s explanation and performance of morin khuur and khoomei.
- short video demonstrating and explaining the origins of the different khoomei tones.
- the documentary “Genghis Blues”.
Zither or yatga
Another traditional Mongolian instrument is the yatga, a kind of zither with a wooden body and strings played by finger plucking.
Check out B. Baasandorj playing the yatga and singing with some khoomei here.
Flute or limbe
The Mongolian flute, called the limbe, was traditionally made from bamboo and is a very popular folk musical instrument. It produces a delicate sound in stark contrast to the gruff tones of throat singing and flautists use a form of circular breathing to play it.
Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba and hordes of traditional food stalls go with the festivities.
Originating in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an indigenous peasant, the custom continues throughout the Americas.
In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographers. Tiny replicas of adults, the boys have mustaches painted on their faces and the girls little baskets tied to their heads. Each scene has a variety of typical Guatemalan everyday items for the children to use as props including miniature marimba, tortillas on a comal, model horses and a strange collection of live chickens and toy tigers.
Colorful images of the Virgin.
Children dressed up in traditional indigenous costumes.
Horse racing was the Three Manly Games event of the Nadaam competition that I had most looked forward to since arriving in Mongolia and it proved to be the most raw and authentic.
It took place on the steppe a few kilometers out of the capital Ulaanbaatar and to get there two uncles of my newly wed sister-in-law Anna drove us in 4WDs. The roads were so congested, as this was a national holiday and such a popular event, that we cut across country which was an adventure in itself.
A muddle of unmarked dirt tracks crisscross this barren, open landscape, splitting off in various directions and enough to confuse the most skilled orienteer. We weren’t the only ones out there. Lines of cars streamed along behind each other but everyone seemed to know where they were headed.
We were tossed around in the back seat over ruts and potholes until we almost reached a traffic choked, paved road where police forced us to turn back. Then it was mayhem for a while as all the cars tried to maneuver out of a tight dead-end while still more arrived.
We cut back across the steppe partly on dirt tracks and the rest of the time off-road. Finally we reached our journey’s end, the race finish line, which was a flurry of activity with droves of people walking or riding around on horseback, many in traditional Mongolian costumes. There was an excited buzz in the air as they waited for the race finale.
In Mongolia, horses far outnumber the human population and, despite their small size, are horses not ponies. Mongolians are so deeply proud of them that a traditional gift to a three-year old male child is a horse. They are extremely tough, surviving out on the steppe during the harsh winters and are an essential part of daily life. Nomads use them to herd their huge flocks, sometimes they eat the meat and they use the mare’s milk to drink or ferment it to make airag, the national alcoholic beverage. The best they train to race and winners are highly prized.
Everyone lounging around on horseback waiting for the race to come in.
This kind man let me sit on his Russian horse which is bigger than the Mongolian. It was the first time I sat on a horse in Mongolia but not the last.
Exquisite saddle on the Russian horse.
Nadaam horse races are long distance, cross-country events held on the open steppe with no set track or course, ranging usually from an exhausting 15-30 kilometers long depending on the age class of the horse. Up to 1000 horses compete from all over Mongolia.
Jockeys are from 5-13 years old as the main purpose of the race is to test the speed and endurance of the horse and not the rider’s skill.
Before the race starts spectators sing traditional songs and jockeys sing a special song called a gingo. As the winning horse crosses the finish line, everyone dashes to touch its lucky sweat and they sing to the last horse in the two-year old class wishing him luck. Prizes are awarded to both horses and jockeys.
The race coming in fast across the steppe.
Everyone cheering and standing up on their horses to get a good view.
Standing up on their horses to get a view of the race.
Unusual attire for riding but here there was a mix of everything.
Closing in fast almost at the end of the race.
A view of the race trailing across the vast steppe.
Horseman wearing a brightly colored deel, the national costume. This robe-like garment is daily wear for many Mongolians. Here there was a real mix of traditional Mongolian and western style clothing.
Selling Mongolian flags.
Climbing for a better view.
Everyone gets around on horseback.
Selling drinks out of a shopping cart.
Taking a break.
Watching the screen on horseback.
Gers in the background.
The two uncles waiting for lunch.
Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
Nadaam poster showing the Three Manly Games of archery, wrestling and horse racing.
Stopping by at the store.
Billiards on the steppe.
Also check out my blog post Nadaam Festival: Mongolian Wrestling.
When in Mongolia someone told me an old tale about a woman who disguised as a man, competed in the wrestling competitions, thrashed all the male competitors and became the champion, disgracing them all. Since then the tight vest or Zodog purposefully exposes the chest avoiding another impostor repeating this shameful event.
Traditional Mongolian wrestling competitions are all male and are full of ancient rituals. There are no separate weight classes and no time limits and the wrestler whose knee or elbow touches the ground loses the match.
After the opening ceremony for Nadaam the wrestling contests began.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Wrestlers psyching themselves up while waiting to compete.
Before and after each match the wrestlers perform the Eagle Dance or Devekh, a ritual symbolizing power and invincibility.
Several fights occur at the same time.
Judges and assistants watch the competitors.
Also check out my blog post on Nadaam horse racing on the steppe.
Nadaam or the “Three Manly Games” is the most important festival of the year in Mongolia and is held throughout the country during the national holiday from 11-13 July. Its roots lie in Mongolian warrior traditions and includes competitions in wrestling, horse racing and archery.
The National Sports Stadium in the capital Ulaanbaatar holds the biggest celebrations and opens with an extravagant ceremony of horsemen, athletes, musicians, dancers and the military. Then the contests begin.
My brother Mike planned his wedding in Mongolia to coincide with Nadaam, giving guests visiting from other countries the chance to see this unique festival too.
National Sports Stadium, Ulaanbaatar
Officials in the stadium dressed in the national costume. This robe-like garment called a deel is daily wear for many people in the city and out on the steppe.
Old woman in national costume arrived before the crowds.
Beautiful costumes everywhere.
The President of Mongolia, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, gave a speech during the ceremony which broadcasted to everyone on the big screen.
Spectators sheltering from the harsh sun under umbrellas.
Archers gallop on horseback.
Archery display. Both men and women compete in Mongolian archery and wear traditional costumes.
A multitude of film crew and photographers record the event.
Horsemen show their skill galloping into the stadium in a cloud of dust.
Synchronized military display.
Parachutists landed in the stadium closely missing dancers. It was mayhem.
A full stadium.
Horseman carrying the Mongolian flag. The yellow symbol on the left is the national emblem or the Soyombo seen everywhere. It has representations of fire, sun, moon, earth, water and the Taijitu or Yin-Yang symbol.
After the two ceremonies we had a photo shoot in the Wedding Palace then piled into the cars to go just around the corner to a temple for more photos.
Wedding Palace Photo Shoot
With Anna’s parents.
Anna’s sister Boroo and her daughters.
After the official service we all followed the bride and groom out to another room for the traditional ceremony. This part was totally unexpected.
Traditional Mongolian Ceremony
Listening to the toast. Of course the foreigners in the group didn’t understand anything except for Mike who is learning Mongolian. At 11.00 am it was a bit early to down shots of vodka, especially cups of it. Culturally it’s considered polite to accept the cup then take a sip or just a sniff of it before passing it back to the host.
The musician played the morin khuur or horse-head fiddle during the entire length of the ceremony. This is one of the most important traditional musical instruments of the country. The strings are made from horse-tail hair and the top of the neck is carved into the shape of a horse’s head. Empty vodka cups litter the trays on the table in front of him.