Chin state located in the remote, western part of Myanmar is the country’s poorest but most ethnically diverse region. Rarely visited by foreigners, Chin is home to more than 50 of Myanmar’s 135 recognised ethnical minorities. The highlight of a trip is a visit to villages and meeting the last living face-tattooed women of Chin tribes. The tradition of tattooing faces is dying out. In the next few years it will become increasingly difficult to experience this fascinating but disappearing habit.
Getting to face-tattooed Chin women
There are two main locations to encounter Chin women with face tattoos. We have previously blogged about trekking to Chin villages in Mindat and Kampetlet. The second place offering this opportunity are the Chin villages in the Mrauk U area in Rakhine state. This option is relatively more convenient to reach, due to villages location on the shores of Lay Myo (Lemro) River, on the Rakhine and Chin border. A typical itinerary to visit the villages includes a morning flight to Sittwe (Sittway), the provincial capital of Rakhine, a 4 hour cruise upstream Kaladan river to Mrauk U and visiting some of the most significant temples (read more about Mrauk U in our previous blog post). The following morning, set off from Mrauk U towards Lay Myo river on a pre-arranged excursion. The journey requires a combination of car/motorcycle to reach the jetty (30min) and a 2h cruise on a longboat upstream the Lay Myo river.
While it is possible to arrange this trip on your own, we cannot emphasize the importance of hiring an experienced guide. There are approximately 5 villages situated on the banks of the river. Your guide will take you to those villages where he has formed a geat relationship with the Chin women. If you are into photography it would allow you to take some great photos. The elderly ladies, other villagers and children always warmly welcome a guide they know. Aside from being your guide, the guide also plays a role in bringing basic yet very useful medicine and drugs for the elderly.
What to expect in Chin villages?
Each of three villages we visited: Sin Thay Ko, Pan Paung and Kone Chaung offered a distinctive setting and differed in size. Pan Paung, by far the largest of the three villages hosts a school and a small souvenir shop. Here, you are likely to encounter most if not all of the 6 Chin ladies with face tattoos living in the village. Sin Thay Ko is the smallest of the villages we visited and hosts the last three face-tattooed women. Walking around the village you will see a number of fruit trees, such as mangoes, bananas or passion fruits. In Kone Chaung village you can climb a small hill for a spectacular view of the river curve and a brief visit to a hilltop temple. In this village, you will find five face-tattooed Chin women, with the oldest one over 100 years old!
History of Chin women’s face tattoos
Not much is known about the origins of the face-tattoo tradition. Some people believe that it started as a mean to protect Chin girls from kidnappings or forced marriages to kings. Others say woman got a face-tattoo before getting married, to show her true love to the future husband. A lot of the tattoos were made in an early age. After speaking to Chin women with face tattoos, we did not feel they considered it to be a life-long burden. Although very painful to make, they have been extremely proud of their tattoos. In addition, we learned that each tattoo has a unique pattern associated with a particular region or even village.
A lot of travellers visiting the villages ask the guide about the causes of the tradition’s decline. We have heard and read about a couple of explanations:
- Forgotten knowledge: each village used to have an artist familiar with the art of face tattoos. Over time as the artists died, they have not passed this knowledge to the next generation
- Government ban: In 60’s and early 70’ the government made the practice illegal
- Change of attitude towards tattoos: getting a tattoo was previously an integral part of growing up. Women used to get a tattoo before marriage. There was a also lot of environmental pressure from parents and peers to get a face tattoo
It is probably a combination of all three factors that contributed to the decline of this unique tradition. Despite a relative rise in popularity of Chin villages excursion in recent years, very few travellers take one of the last chances for a journey back in time to meet Chin tribe and take a photo of their beautiful face tattoos.
Contact us at www.tripbuidlertours.com for a customised itinerary and visit to Mrauk U and Chin villages.