From the already remote town of Mrauk U in the Rakhine State of Myanmar, an area the military government does not encourage Western tourists to travel to, we took a boat upriver to visit the remote Chin Villages where old women still bear the scars of the facial tattoos forced upon them in childhood to make them less appealing to any men invading the area. We had mixed feelings initially about venturing to these villages as we are generally not big fans of people as tourism commodities. The thought of seeing these old women paraded out for the greedy cameras of rich European tourists was not appealing to us. After a bit of digging though, and discovering that these old women deliberately “show off” their faces for tourists as a way of making money to support their extended families who live in some of the poorest areas of Myanmar, we felt moderately better about going out to see them.
The journey to these villages involves a nearly hour drive out of Mrauk U on potholed dirt roads in a suspension-less 4×4, before getting into a small boat powered by what sounds like a lawn mower motor for a further 2-3 hour trip upstream. This all sounds like part of the adventure, which it indeed is; unless, like Andy you are struck down with a nasty virus. Andy has bad luck when it comes to getting sick on our trips, he’s had Strep throat in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, and really bad altitude sickness in Bolivia, so with this trip we were pretty much waiting for whatever may befall him this time. On our trips, Andy is seldom without a camera in his hand, taking breathtaking pics of stuff I often don’t even notice, so when he didn’t pick up a camera for this entire portion of the trip, I KNEW that he wasn’t just down with man flu, but with something more serious. But to his credit, like a freaking rock-star, he still made this trip out with me up river despite the near constant urge to vomit and god knows what else.
The only access the people who live in this region have to the “outside world” is along the mass of river systems that snake through the region. You really get a feeling of seeing a place almost frozen in time as people here continue to live on the river in the same way they have for generations.
The first village we stopped at was at a picturesque bend in the river. It was a place that looks like an idyllic spot to live in, and in many ways it must be, but we were also confronted by the crippling poverty and isolation of the area. Amazingly though, everyone we met was almost excessively warm, welcoming and wanted to chat to us.
As we made our way up the steep powder soft sand to the village, we were met by an excited group of women all well over 70. They took us by the arms and led us around their village, showing us their facial tattoos and their massive bamboo plugs they have in their ears – they thought is was hilarious and laughed with their betel-stained teeth at me when I showed them my own (comparably small) plugs, and I seemed to form an instant connection with them after that. These women weave cloth as a way of bringing income to their extended families as they sell these exquisite fabrics to the people who come to see them. This makes the interactions with them a mutually beneficial exchange between tourist and woman and in our mind makes this a far more acceptable exchange. Getting to see how these incredible people live and getting a glimpse into their everyday lives was a truly incredible experience.