About an excursion upstream from Mrauk U into three Chin Villages.   Meeting a dying breed of tattooed Chin women.

I am still hanging out with the Australian couple.  Not only are they great fun, they also cut the cost of some of the excursions I had planned for this part of Myanmar by 2/3.  I consider them among the great manifestations of this trip and am very grateful that they don’t seem to tire of me yet.  After all, they are on their honeymoon and really, I am crashing their romantic get-away!  But they confessed that they have been living together for 17 years and are not quite the newly-wed couple they seem to be on paper.  Still, a big thanks goes out to both of you, Rowina and Ted for traveling with me.

There are a few standard excursions the Lonely Planet recommends in this area and even though LP is not always right it is usually a great and reliable source on some good ideas particularly for a novice traveler.  One of my goals for this trip was to visit a variety of ethnic areas.  As Myanmar in general is a great mix of people, religions, and ethnic groups, different areas are still distinctly flavored and usually dominated by one or another ethnic group.  Mawlamyine was predominantly Mon.  Mrauk U is predominantly Rakhine.

Chin State is adjacent to Rakhine State.  But Chin State is hard to get to.  Permissions may now be obtained to venture into it but if I want to see some of the main attractions in Myanmar, I have to limit my time in this part of the country.  Going on a day trip to three Chin villages from Mrauk U seemed the next best thing to do.  Ted and Rowina were up for it and through our hotel we hired a guide who arranged tuk-tuk, boat, and visits of three villages for us.

I really cannot tell a Mon village from a Chin village.  I do not have the ability to distinguish the village types nor the people nor the language.  One thing we were told is that in this region the typical greeting “mingalaba” is pronounced “mungalaba”.  But that’s where it ended for me.  Just like on Ogre Island in Mon State, there were fishing villages here and some of the women are known for their handicrafts.  I could tell the difference though in their weavings!

The Mon women were using mechanized full-sized looms and could produce more than one longhi-sized garment per day.  On the other hand, the Chin women were using looms they would strap between their waist and a stable place such as a balcony railing or a tree.  And in slow motion, one thread at a time, they would produce table-runner sized cloths needing as much as 10 days for one piece of fabric.

We went north on the river towards India.  Lush and fertile land stretched left and right of the Lemon River and turned more mountainous the longer the trip lasted.  The river is frequented by small boats transporting cargo and by fishing boats.  A few villages can be seen along the river.  Kids bathe in the river, women wash their dishes.  In many ways these are scenes just like the ones I observed while floating on the Niger River in Mali two years ago.

The difference was that the boat that our guide had hired for us was not staked along the river as in Mali, but powered by a motor which greatly distracted from the peaceful scenery.  But it was apparently unavoidable.  In contrast to the locals who crouch on the bottom of boats like ours or sit on low benches, our boat had been outfitted with four plastic lawn chairs…  There is just no way around it: we Westerners don’t know how to sit on the floor for an extended time especially when we have passed a certain age…  It is truly embarrassing to see how fit, lean, muscular and strong the locals are; old and young and men and women alike.

The great draw for visitors like us to one of the Chin villages is that there are still some old women living there who are part of a bygone era: tradition dictated that women would undergo a tattoo ceremony of their face, marking the face with distinct geometric patterns.  No matter where they would go or who they would marry, they would always be recognizable as Chin women.  Each of the villages we visited had one or two of them left, now all over 70, in one case over 80 years old.

All of us felt quite self-conscious of wanting to see and photograph one (or more) of these women.  But instead of shy or upset about this, these women have made a conscious decision to use their distinctive looks to provide for their families.  They welcomed us with open arms into their homes.  In one case we were offered mangos, in the last case we were invited to a spacious balcony to take a lunch break and offered delicious coconuts for drinks and desert.

For a set donation amount these women pose happily for photos and answer questions.  They described (translated by our guide) to us when this ceremony happened.  In one case the woman was as young as 9 years old, the others seemed to have been in their teens.  The all vividly recalled how painful this ceremony was.  For days they could barely open their eyes or eat as their heads were swollen.  The tattoos cover not only chin and forehead, but nose and eyelids as well!  But none has suffered from any permanent damage which seems a miracle to me given how thin eyelids are…

Today, they are proud to be some of the last survivors of a tradition which long since has been outlawed.  The last woman we saw, in her 80’s was only visiting.  She was the most delicate of them all and blind.  The family told us that she was on her way to a hospital in Mrauk U.  Perhaps, the family sensed that it was time for her to die in proper care?  Perhaps it was a routine visit?  We did not ask.

Both Rowina and I held her hand for a while which she seemed to appreciate greatly.  I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity. It is one thing to see these women in photographs.  It is quite another to see their personalities, their humor and their vitality.

This alone was worth coming for.

Good night!