“You are now entering a war zone. Please be careful and don’t go to any strange places.”
That was our welcoming warning by a Burmese man as we stopped for morning coffee in rural Rakhine State, Myanmar.
The warning didn’t seem inappropriate just a little late; it had felt like we had already been in a war zone. For the past 14 hours or so we had been crammed into a minibus doing a night run through the mountains that separate Rakhine State from the rest of Myanmar. The minibus constantly broke down and even more constantly stopped to load and unload goods. Its other passengers were about as welcoming as the seats were comfortable – that is not at all.
What was most disconcerting was the warning not to go to strange places. That wouldn’t do at all. The very reason we were making the trip was to visit strange places. Mrauuk U itself had the allure of the unknown and strange as did the villages we hoped to visit which are inhabited by the Chin ethnic group and feature women with full face tattoos.
Despite being in a crammed bus and being extremely tired the view of rural Rakhine State out of the window was amazingly beautiful. Rocky mountains merged into rolling hills and green plains as small streams flowed into massive rivers. Ribbons of wild growth, at times spares hardwood trees at other times dense jungle gave way to lush green paddy fields glistening with morning dew. Goats, pigs and chickens fluttered in villages as we drove past while farmers walked buffalo and other livestock on leads to water holes. Hay bales were carried on heads to other animals. Whilst blurry and less detailed than it would have been to most viewers, the images that presented themselves as we rolled through Rakhine State were amongst the most beautiful I have seen. Outside the bus the sun was rising with increasing intensity and the bus was feeling even more crammed.
After too much travelling we finally found ourselves in Mrauk U and got fed and watered. We had had a run of bad luck with the bus trip and Mrauk U was turning out not to be the friendliest town on our travels but we were absolutely blessed to come across Ko Pauk Sa. Ko and his family run a tea shop in Mrauk U which is well worth visiting and he also offers tours of the area. He is very proud of Rakhine State, particularly the Mrauk U area and loves sharing it with visitors. We needed his help to get to the Chin villages we hoped to visit and in engaging him as a guide we also gained a great friend whom I hope to visit again. I will give more details in regards to Ko Pauk Sa, including his contact details, so if you are planning a visit to the area make sure to get in touch with this generous man.
Early on our second day in Rakhine State we began our journey with Ko to the Chin villages. After a bumpy pick-up ride to the Lay Mio River we continued on boat for two hours or so. Such boat trips give a unique view of river life in Myanmar. Boats ply back and forth carrying passengers and any number of goods; fishermen work in trawlers and with hand nets and little villages cling to the upper banks. I miss most of the detail as we go but I use my camera to shoot at the colour and movement I perceive to enjoy later on a computer screen. I would love to be able to see things properly as they occurred but the act of trying to photograph them creates an extra challenge and level of fun.
I similarly knew that once we reached the villages that I wouldn’t be able to see the face repeated word tattoos of the Chin ladies in person but I was still keen to visit, take some photographs and experience at least a little village life in this remote part of Myanmar. We were worried at first that it would just be a commercial experience where we would take photos of stoney-faced women for a fee and be hounded to purchase tourist trinkets. Admittedly there was a tiny bit of that though the hand weaved goods on sale were top quality, attractive and reasonably priced. Their makers and sellers were also good fun. Walking through the lush, green villages with pigs, goats and chickens darting and lounging about was a great experience. Chewing beetle nut, joking and laughing with the villagers was a lot of fun and learning about the tradition of the face tattoos was extremely interesting but the highlight of the visit was when these elements melted into the background and real conversation, despite the language and cultural differences occurred.
One women we visited had no interest in selling anything – she could find nothing to sell even when I repeatedly asked. She was however very keen to have visitors in her house as she very much wants to share the story of her face tattoo before the tradition is lost forever. As a child she desperately wanted a face tattoo like the other girls and women but at first her parents were reluctant to let her be tattooed. She begged to be allowed to receive the traditional tattoo and when her begging didn’t work she became depressed and refused to eat. Thankfully her family relented and she proudly wears her tattoo as a symbol of her tribe, her tradition and her own strength. She is very sad that she had no daughters to pass the tradition onto and also very sad that she was one of the last to get such a tattoo.
As she told her story I noticed the person sitting next to her give her a polite nudge and point out to her that I was wearing an eye patch. Whilst I often struggle to see and interpret body language I could instantly tell that this exchange of information was done with respect rather than them making pirate jokes. The Chin woman, I’ll call her Ma from now on as I believe that is the Chin word for woman, quickly stopped her story about her face covering and asked me about mine.
I let her know as best I could that I have to wear the patch to cover one eye as it is the only way I can get a bit of useful sight in the other eye. I couldn’t explain the exact reasons – that is hard enough to do with people whom I share a language with and have medical degrees – but I let her know that I wore it because I have many eye problems and have poor eyesight. She was interested in my eye patch because tragically her grandchild had recently lost an eye.
With the sharing of this information we started talking together. Yes, we still needed an interpreter but we could both we could also understand each other’s feelings and experiences without having to use words. I could feel her sadness and concern in regards to her grandchild’s future. I could feel that her sadness and concerns were similar to my mother’s in regards to me. I quickly forgot that she was a tribal woman with a face tattooin an isolated village in a state that is described as a ‘war zone’; she was just a woman, a human, the same as the rest of us.
Ma thought it odd that I, as a Westerner, still had eye problems and strange that the doctors in my “clever country” couldn’t just fix it so I had to explain that we aren’t as clever as we often make out – I could tell that she also viewed me as a fellow human rather than a foreigner or a visitor. Ma was an instant friend, an instant family member.
We were both near tears as we talked, listened and sat so to try and lighten the mood I stood to show her my white cane and its uses. As I stood a spare, new eye patch fell out of my pocket and I instantly turned and offered it as a gift to Ma for her grandson. She seemed genuinely moved to receive it. She delicately took the patch and had it carefully placed in a bag and put inside her house. Whether or not it will be used or useful I am e sure but it was a heartfelt gift that will hopefully be a reminder that a story was heard, understood and cared about. I was further humbled and moved when I received by email a few weeks later a photo of this woman with her grandson wearing the patch.
With perfect timing, another Chin lady made her appearance with a bamboo walking stick instantly making us all laugh as we saw the universal usefulness of a humble stick!. We quickly compared our sticks and their uses. It was at first decided by the women that my white cane was inferior as a walking stick as it lacked strength compared to the sturdy bamboo version but they were impressed when I demonstrated how I used it as a mobility aid. They were even more impressed by how I was able to fold it up. This bit of engineering magic particularly impressed my ever-thinking guide Ko Pauk Se who took great delight in folding and unfolding my cane over the next day and a half; figuring out how it worked and how he could use the same technology himself.
I would love to be able to return to this village and its people again. It would be an honour to spend more time with Ma and meet her grandson. Obviously it would be great to be able to help or at least show some support but ultimately a return would be a catch up with friends rather than any kind of humanitarian mission. I would love to spend more time there to witness and photograph daily village life to tell their story and show that there is a lot more to the ladies of the village than just face tattoos. I’d also love to get some gardening tips from these enterprising people!
We had originally wanted to go to strange places and meet strange people. Tribal women with face tattoos promised to offer such strangeness but instead they were beautifully ordinary. Eye patches, face tattoos; bamboo or graphite sticks – it really doesn’t matter. Strange people, blind people, tattooed people, tribal people, western people – we are all just people.
*This trip would have been impossible without a good guide and interpreter. Thankfully, In Ko Pauk Sa we not only found that but also a friend. Ko went well above duty in helping me get around and experience the village and people. Alsways their with a helping hand to get up and down steep steeps and barely there tracks but also quick to help us understand the people and places we visited. I also spent a day exploring themany temples and sites at Mrauk U itself which was a great experience for me and extra hard work for Ko! He has a great knowledge about the area, its people, the temples and Buddhism in general and is happy to share – ask him as much as you can and he will let you know. Ko can be found at his tea shop in Mrauk U which he runs with his family. Tours can be organised their and bus tickets out of Mrauk U can also be bought there. You can contact Ko Pauk Sa on email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 09421721059. Please let him know that Kristan from Australia with the eye covering sent you!!