Proud women exemplifying their heritage.
That’s what I had in mind as I read through the Lonely Planet guidebook. Interesting, dignified and exotic. The tattooed women of the Chin Villages had captured my attention as I was planning my trip to the country of Myanmar. The women carry the permanent image of a long outlawed tradition, an excruciatingly painful face tattoo reserved only for young women. In the days of old, the king would come and take his pick of the beautiful women of the Chin Tribe. Not wanting to relinquish the best of their village, the Rakhine elders took to tattooing the faces of young women with a distinctive design: a spider web stretching across the face. I had read that many of the remaining Chin villagers were proud of their tattoos, that they wore them with a sense of honor. This simply isn’t the case. That wouldn’t make for abounding tourism though, would it? We’ll get to that a bit later.
The Road to The Golden Dragon Inn
The Golden Dragon Inn was where I came to rest after a brutal bus journey. The normal transit time from Yangon to Mrauk U is somewhere in the 18-21 hour range with Burmese traffic and roads. I arrived after approximately 36 hours in multiple cramped buses, all blaring loud Burmese pop music accompanied by blurry music videos on small TV’s strapped to the ceiling of various buses. The extended journey was completely my own fault, an instant karma of sorts. I’ll spare the details, but basically I was rather rude to the ticket salesman who wouldn’t refund my ticket. There’s a saying about the foolishness of smiting another at your own expense. The life lesson was lost on me apparently. Damn near 2 full days later and paying twice as much, I arrived in Mrauk U. Life’s lessons require refresher courses occasionally. I inquired about a guide to go to the Chin villages and found a man at the Inn who regularly took tourists out to meet the tattooed ladies. I was able to convince two rather bovine German women to accompany me and therefore reduced the cost of my trip from $90 to about $28. Win. After negotiating a price and a schedule we were set to depart the next morning, traveling up the Lay Myo to reach the Chin Villages.
Reaching the Chin Villages
An old man well acquainted with the bright sun and clear water sat at the rudder of our small vessel. His forearms rippled with muscle as he guided us up the lazy river. Gliding through the Lay Myo, we see families washing clothes on the banks, fishermen dragging nets over the side of their boat as we push upstream to the sputtering rhythm of our diesel powered rig. Above the blue water, a mountainous jungle looms in the distance. It was a simple wooden contraption, the boat, clearly handmade with a pallet set inside the vessel for passengers to sit on. We each found whatever position suited us best, contouring our bodies with the curves of the vessel as we sped along the river. It was a hot day and our guide wisely brought along an umbrella he kept rested upon his shoulder, he did not offer to share and I can’t say that I blamed him. He informed us that we would be going to multiple villages and visiting with the tattooed ladies. I liked our guide, he seemed genuine; quiet but conversational.
Our boat slid up onto the soft edges of the river and the diesel motor bolted to the wooden frame was finally silent. We walked up a rutted path to find a communal family village. There, we met our first Chin villager with a tattooed face. Our guide interpreted for us as she went about her daily tasks. I could tell we weren’t the first tourists she had seen and she will certainly be seeing plenty more in the years to come. The second village we arrived at had 3 of the tattooed ladies who sat in a semicircle under a tree . We shared something similar to a papaya that a younger woman sliced open for us as we listened to the stories from the most talkative of the ladies. She tells us of when she first got the tattoo, that three men had to hold her down as family members completed the tattoo with a sharpened bamboo stick and ink. She said she couldn’t talk or eat for 3 days after the tattoo. The conversation flowed onward and we asked if she liked the tattoo, if she likes the way it looks or the status it gives her. She says no, she thinks it is ugly. She continues talking for a bit then looks at us and makes a picture taking motion with her hand, wraps a decorative shawl around her shoulders and poses for the camera. It’s not a sad or shamed exchange. It’s more like, “Well, I know you came here for a reason”. I leave the camera on the ground, the whole thing feels weird. She points at me though and makes the picture motion again, but then turns her hand over into an open palm. Ah got it. This is a business transaction. I snap some photos and leave a donation.
I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the whole setup, but it benefits both parties I guess. I get something to hang on my wall and they get something to buy some essentials with. I used to feel rather guilty about being from a first world country, that I was dipping my toes into the stream that is their everyday reality and saying, “Wow, this water sure is dirty and unpleasant. How interesting.” The reality of the situation though is that the world is not a level playing field. It never has been and never will be. With the continued evolution of our species and an upward trajectory towards complexity, the entire planet becomes in some strange way, better with time. Through our interaction, she benefits and I benefit. Do I feel weird about it? Yeah. But we are able to exist in a symbiotic relationship that benefits us both. They offer me perspective of a sort and I offer them a glimpse of a world totally different than their own. Not necessarily better or worse, just entirely different.
Arriving at the last village, we find the largest density of tattooed ladies. 5 ladies sit under the floor beams of a house raised on stilts. It’s late November but it’s turned out to be a searing day; nothing compared to the summer I’m sure though. We have an exchange similar to the last village and the same scene plays out; take pictures and leave a donation. We walk around the village as the women show us the handmade cloths they have spun. There is a small school in the village which brings the children from the other villages along dirt paths and over streams to get a basic education. As we make our way back to the river, we’re invited to a small hut where a man is making home made wine. They offer it to me and I gladly accept, noxious and somewhat sour it has a sweet flare to it. I share a few swigs and laughs with the brewmaster and climb back into the boat.
Along the Lay Myo
The boat ride back is a quiet one, everyone has their own thoughts and the sun has robbed us of excess energy. I stick my hand into the water as we speed along and feel the current that we create. Myanmar is a changing place, still deeply rooted in the after effects of a stratocracy, but certainly changing. In large part it is due to people like myself and my two rather loud companions. The lives of those in the Chin Villages and our own lives are so different they are almost unrecognizable. I don’t pity these people though, I respect them. For myself they are the representation of what a prior age looks like. They toil under the heavy load of third world circumstances but yet they are moving toward complexity, just as we are. We are simply moving at different speeds due to a thousand different reasons. The Lay Myo transports us back to normal civilization, but the river transports much more than just bodies. It transports ideas, hopes and interaction with people almost from a future time. More importantly, it transports dreams and possibilities to an emerging country.
‘Til Next Time,