Visiting Remote Tribes in Chin State, Myanmar
Myanmar is one of those destinations that will leave you speechless for many reasons. With unaltered traditions, alive culture and interesting history and beliefs, Myanmar manages to keep its authenticity despite fairly recently opening to tourism. As a freelance photographer I always try to get off the beaten path to find beautiful landscapes and remote villages. I wanted to explore Myanmar beyond the typical itinerary.
Due to recent political conflicts most of the country is still closed to tourists, so I advise checking the most up to date information on which states are accessible.
Getting to Chin State from Bagan
I began my trip in Yangon, from where I took a bus to Bagan. After four days exploring the temples I decided to make my way west to Chin State, near the Chinese border. I had read about remote tribes living there, which until recently practised the custom of women having their faces tattooed. I found it fascinating and really wanted to go there. The best place to explore the villages was a small mountain town called Mindat. There aren’t direct buses going there from Bagan, but there are a couple of minivans departing from nearby town Pakokku. I hopped on the 8am prearranged pick up truck, and then was transferred to a minivan departing directly for Mindat. The total journey took around 8 hours with a few stops, and cost 20$ USD with pick up from my hostel in Bagan.
Accommodation in Mindat & Finding a Local Guide
Because Chin State isn’t very popular among backpackers, I found very little information on Mindat in a guidebook. There was no accommodation available anywhere to book online, but fellow traveller recommended a small hotel called Victoria Hotel. It is located on the main street of Mindat, and is one of very few buildings with actual English signs. The rooms are very basic but comfortable and cost 7$ USD per person. I asked the owner if he knew any local guides who could take me, and the two girls I met on a bus, to the local villages. He connected us with a very friendly licensed guide who spoke great English. His name was Thang and he is very knowledgeable. (+959426436150) I highly recommend him as guide.
We ended up paying 28$ each for the guide and scooter driver (the only way to access most tribes was by scooter or by foot). The next day we got picked up at 9am and started driving for about an hour through beautiful mountainous terrain. We went down many winding paths only suitable for motorbikes, crossed the valley, a few suspension bridges and eventually made it to remote villages. Each family we visited lived in very poor conditions in small bamboo houses with no furniture, just few stools and sleeping mat. Each hut had indoor fire pit and cooking essentials. We brought them a small gift, which basically consisted of rice, soap, candles, and coffee- the necessities.
The Tribes, Animism & the Tattoo Tradition
We visited seven women, who were all very friendly and allowed us to take photos except a few, who didn’t want their pictures taken due to their beliefs. Most of the Chin State has been converted to Christianity but 5-10% of people still practice animism and believe in attribution of a soul to plants, objects (such as cameras) or animals. The first woman we visited was 94 years old. You can tell by her posture that she worked all her life in a field. I found her very kind and friendly. She invited us to her modest home with no hesitation.
We sat on the floor and listened to stories and her experiences with tattoo tradition. Our guide was necessary not only to take us to these remote locations but also to translate from the local Chin language to English. According to the custom, banned over 50 years ago, young girls age 10 and up had to have their face tattooed to become more attractive.
Another story commonly found online says that years ago the practice was supposed to make women less attractive in case the king wanted to kidnap young girls. My guide said this wasn’t true, and that a long time ago the guides visiting these hard to access tribes simply didn’t speak the Chin language well or at all, so would change or make up stories.
How They Did the Tattoos
The way they they used to do these tattoos was extremely painful. Ink was made from charcoal mixed with juice from tomato or bean leaves, and soot for disinfection. Then it was applied by scratching deep into the skin tissue using a sharp thorn. Each tribe used different patterns so it was easy to identify which woman belonged to which tribe. They used many symbols depicted from nature such as the moon, a river or millet. The youngest woman in Mindat voluntarily had her face tattooed at 15, despite it being illegal and painful. She is now 27 years old, and wanted the tradition to continue.
Remote Tribes in Chin State: Meeting Yaw Shen
We visited three tribes: Nga Yah, M’uun and Yin Du. The last woman we saw was 89 years old and had big clay disks for ear piercings, which had stretched over the years. Her name is Yaw Shen. She was the last member of her family who knew how to play the flute using her nose – a very old tradition and tough skill to learn. It was fascinating learning about the customs, animism, animal sacrifice and lives of these women. Most of them are relieved that the painful practice of tattooing young girls’ faces isn’t mandatory or allowed anymore. Yet still a few of them are saddened that a big part of Chin culture will die with the last tattooed woman.
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