Clutched in between Bangladesh and India, Myanmar’s Chin State is the most remote, impoverished and least explored region in Myanmar. Visiting this mountainous corner of Myanmar with its thick jungles inhabited by indigenous tribes is like traveling back in time. Although located just a few hours drive away from Bagan, the region is still visited by only a handful of foreign travellers, who would like to experience a real, off the beaten track feel of Myanmar. Local Chin tribes are well known by tattooing their faces and by their traditional animist beliefs that are often mixed with Christianity brought to the region by Western missionaries. This hardly accessible region was isolated for centuries and some of the villages have only recently become connected by patchy roads with the rest of the country. The centuries long isolation helped to preserve its unique culture and its pristine nature. We have taken a 4-day visit to the Chin State which was an unforgettable and a once in a lifetime experience.
Our early morning, 6 hour-long journey by a 4WD jeep from Bagan to Kanpetlet was full of lush, densely forested valleys and spectacular views of the Chin Hills. By noontime, we reached Kanpetlet, a hilltop town, perched at 1400 meters and arrived to our hotel where similarly to all hotels in the area, the electricity and hot water were only available in the evening and there was no mobile signal or internet connection (even on our mobile phones that had local sim cards with data plans). Without delays with our local guide, we visited a few nearby villages to explore the local way of life. Nearly all pine wooden houses in the village were built on high stilts due to slanting terrains and had mithun (wild ox) skulls hanged on them. This is a remnant of the traditional animist belief that animals need to be sacrificed to please local spirits and their skulls are put on the house. There were Y shape sacrificial posts nearby every house and round stone tombs in front of them. Around the houses were numerous kids playing among various domestic animals: goats, pigs and chicken roaming freely around. The average household consists of 4-6 children and while parents were working in the fields they were taken care of by a face-tattooed grandma or playing around by themselves. Face tattooing is an old custom of all Chin tribes to mark their women so they couldn’t be stolen by local rulers or other tribes. With time, the custom became a sign of beauty and all elderly women we talked to loved their tattoos. The villages where surrounded by farm fields and beautiful views of the mountains. We chatted and took photos with some face-tattooed ladies and gifted them with some toothbrushes and pastes for the children as a token of gratitude.
Kanpetlet town is the base camp for treks to Mount Victoria (Nat Ma Taung), Myanmar’s third highest summit of 3,053 meters that stands amid a vast and little-visited national park. After a half an hour drive up through a spiral and narrow patchy road, we arrived to the foot of the mountain. The two-hour climb was simply stunning and rewarded with breath-taking landscapes. We were well above the clouds with views around chains of mountains everywhere around us. We enjoyed this magical moment so much that it took as a few hours on the top before we decided to head back down. We then drove to Aye Village located somewhere on the way between Kanpetlet and Mindat, which is a base camp for treks around the nearby villages. Most families in the village where gathered around bonfires outside their houses to stay warm while resting after a day in the fields. We join some of them for a short chat and were warmly welcomed by them. In the late evening, we arrived at our trekking house in the Aye Village which was very rustic with thin mattresses on the floor and no running water with such conditions reflecting the local way of life.
Trekking in the villages
Most villages in Chin State are still inaccessible by car and the only way to reach them is on foot or by a motorbike. On our way to one of the villages, we encountered many face-tattooed ladies in their daily routines: working in the fields, gathering some wood or walking to another village. After over half an hour of walking and passing few simple footbridges we arrived at the first village. We were invited by one of the villagers inside his house and were offered a millet wine from the horn of a mithun. Reluctantly, we accepted and quite enjoyed this local drink. His house, like most other houses in the village, had just one room with no furniture and a bonfire in the corner used for cooking and warming up the house during chilly nights. We noticed a home-made rifle in his house and we learned that everyone in Chin State owns a rifle used for hunting. We met a few face-tattooed women in the village with big wooden earrings, one of which played a nose flute for us. We passed through a few villages, each of them were uniquely located with spectacular views. In one of the villages, we encountered a sacrificial ceremony of a mithun which was stripped in the sacrificing post. We watched a local shaman shooting at the animal with arrows from a bow and hitting it with a spear. Local tribes sacrifice animals for local spirits on various occasions like weddings, funerals and also after harvests to bribe local spirits and secure favours from them. All the villages we trekked through were connected only by narrow passages and we learnt that they are completely self sufficient and inaccessible during the rainy season. After around 6 hours of trekking we reached the road where our car and driver were waiting for us to take us to our next destination -Mindat. The trekking was just spectacular, full of glamorous views of the mountains and forests and rich in cultural experience.
We started the day watching picturesque sunrise from our resort. We visited a local market full of agricultural produce and local handicrafts which is considered the centre of the city. Mindat is located along a very long road with all houses perched by the road with beautiful views over the area. We encountered many Christian churches, a legacy of American missionaries who first arrived here in early 19th century. We met and chatted with a few face-tattooed women and learnt that most of them were tattooed between 12 and 14 year old in a painful procedure which takes from a few days to even a week. The tradition was generally stopped in the 1960s when the government has banned the practice. However, we met a few ladies in their 30s with tattoos on their faces which implies that some tribes were practicing it until 1980s.
Tips for traveling to Chin State:
- Due to the high altitude of the mountains, it usually gets very cold at night (5-10 degrees Celsius) therefore bring lots of warm clothes along. Sometimes the villages are covered in clouds that add to the coolness during the day. The hotels provide numerous blankets and hot water in the evening, however a few layers of warm clothing is often necessary.
- Chin tribes do not speak Burmese therefore having a local guide who speaks the local language, assists in translations and navigating the area is very useful
- Bring some small gifts like soaps, tooth brushes/pastes which you can pass to the local families as a token of gratitude after taking some photos and chatting with them. We encourage not to hand out cash to not spoil their selflessness and traditional way of life
- There is no phone signal or Internet connection in the area therefore be ready to get off the rid for a few days
- Most hotels offer electricity and hot water only in the evening therefore bring some power banks along to recharge your cameras
- Make sure to bring pre-packed lunch (from the hotels) for trekking since there are no restaurants or shops in the local villages
- Best time to visit Chin State is from November to February during the winter (dry season). In other months, the roads might be impassable and the rains heavy