A day to remember in the Chin villages – Part 3 of the adventure

Mrauk U requires a time consuming journey and is rather less visited than other parts of Myanmar. Even over the peak Christmas period, the town was quiet and there were not many tourists.  However, one of the main topics of conversation among tourists was about the “tattooed women” of the Chin villages.  It is very difficult to travel to Chin state and requires permissions, but there are a few villages of Chin people which are accessible by boat and drive from Mrauk U.

I was rather hesitant about visiting the remote tribal Chin villages in Rakhine state, concerned about the impact of visits and that the women were seen as some kind of spectacle.  However, having read as much backgroundas possible I felt able to make an informed decision.  On top of this was of course curiosity and the wish to find out for myself.

I had read about the traditional practice of tattooing young women in the villages, apparently to prevent girls being taken by princes from neighbouring areas.  As they approached puberty, girls would have their faces tattooed with an intricate design like a spider web. I was able to visit two villages where there were around 7 – 8 elderly women who were tattooed.  The practice stopped several decades ago and only a few of the older women still have the tattoos.

As I gathered my bits and pieces for the day ahead, I remember thinking that this might be one of those special, memorable days.  In particularly I was hoping that it would be memorable for good reasons.  I was travelling alone with a boatman into an incredibly remote part of the world, totally on trust.

I took a packed lunch with me, my umbrella, and the bag with my essentials in it.  The villages are on a different river so the trip started with a jeep drive of less than an hour to the jetty on the Lemro river.  I was handed over to my boatman and settled on to the little boat which was to be my base for the next six or seven hours.  It was a narrow little boat, with a plastic chair, a lifejacket and shade.  Basic but perfect for the journey.

The river journey took me upstream past bean, peanut and chilli farms along a busy and well trafficked waterway.  I have spent many hours on boats here, but for the first time I saw large, wooden boats being rowed by 2 – 3 men.

Eventually we arrived at a small bamboo jetty, like numerous others but the boatman knew his river and clearly this village too.  I was taken to a house first, and after a few moments I saw an elderly woman approach the side entrance.  I felt a nervous flutter, wondering if she was one of the tattooed women.  She walked in and smiled, holding her hands out in greeting and holding on to mine for a good few minutes.  She led me out of the wooden house, across the dry bed of a stream and up to a very basic structure.  It had no walls, just a thatching roof.  It was filled with benches and had a blackboard.  It was the village school.  As we walked towards it, we were joined by more women, until there were eight of us.  Seven village woman, all tattooed, and me.  We sat down on the benches, chatted and laughed together though understanding very little. The mood was light and comfortable and I had no so sense that the women resented visitors, or felt uncomfortable about the interest in their traditions and tattoos.  Rather, they were clearly proud of their heritage and happy to share with outsiders, particularly because the tradition is no longer practised and there are of course fewer and fewer tattooed women as time wears on.

As we chatted, the women showed me some items which they had made, and which were for sale.  There were some necklaces, and a few bangles and a couple of shawls.  Another example of the benefits of the visits and interest from outsiders.  I wish I could have bought from each one of them, but I ended up buying a necklace and a bangle as well as making a donation to the school and asking that it be for the children.  I was prepared for this, and knew that it was part of an understanding which visitors to the villages have.  It was a beautifully simple and humbling experience.  It was indeed turning out to be a day which I would always remember.

After a while, it was time to leave and after a walk through the village I returned with the boatman to the tiny jetty and we set off, waving to my new friends.  We headed back in the direction we had travelled, and after around twenty minutes turned in to another small jetty. A young woman was at the water’s edge cleaning pots and beside her was an elderly tattooed woman focused on her own washing task.  She didn’t bat an eyelid at my arrival and carried on with her work.  The boatman led me through the bamboo to the village and this time I was taken to a small clearing outside one of the larger houses.  I was introduced to the village leader who spoke a little English and a small bench and a few seats were brought out.  again I was joined by five or six tattooed women as well as other villagers.  The village head insisted that I take a bunch of bananas which are grown in the village and called for a few coconuts to be cut down.  Within a few minutes a fresh coconut was given to me, along with a small bamboo straw.  I had never seen this before, such a natural and practical invention, and something which was also unknown to the Myanmar friends and colleagues I have mentioned it to since my return.  Again our chatter was light hearted, although it did seem to include a marriage proposal from one of the gents.  Or perhaps an arrangement somewhat less formal.  One of the women joked that she would come back to Yangon with me.  I could have stayed there quite comfortably all day but I was anxious not to impinge too much on the villagers’ time and before too long I felt that it was time to move on.

I had one challenge though.  I love coconut water, but I do find that it is an incredibly effective diuretic.  I knew that three hours on the boat would be uncomfortable, though equally I was not expecting there to be a bathroom to use.  My new friend walked with me, hand in hand as we walked back through the village towards the jetty.  I finally decided to ask the boatman if there was anyway I could have a comfort stop before getting back on the boat.  He spoke with the woman, and she responded affirmatively “there is, there is:.  Not sure what there was, she led me back through the village, clarifying my return by telling those who looked puzzled that I needed to use the toilet!  And there indeed was a very clean and well maintained latrine.  Phew!

She came back with me again, to the shore and waved to me as I left.  It was a lovely connection, even though I know that the villages see many one time visitors like me, but I would love to go back one day.

The return journey took over three hours, again past busy river traffic, many villages and farms and it was restful to be able to sit back and reflect on the day as well as taking in river life all around me.  As we travelled back, the sky, which had been cloudy over the previous days, became more angry and dark.  There was clearly a weather system somewhere but I was unable to find out about Cyclone Thane until I was back in Yangon!

I was still smiling when I got back to Mrauk U later in the afternoon. I had indeed had a wonderfully memorable day, as the many pictures here testify.  And in fact the weather worsened the following day and boat travel was largely cancelled so the timing of the trip was very lucky.  I spent the rainy final day of my adventure wandering around the town and packing for my return to Yangon.  The whole trip had indeed been a wonderful Christmas adventure and left me inspired, enthused and with a newfound confidence as well as a very large heap of laundry!


A Christmas Exploring Mrauk U (Part 2 of the adventure)

Christmas Eve

I had arrived in Mrauk U on Christmas Eve in the early afternoon.  After lunch, and trying to make sense of the town map, I set off to start my explorations of the ancient site.  I started off with one of the main temples, which happily was only a few minutes walk from my bedroom!  Already the sun was sinking in the winter sky, and throwing a soft light in through the alcoves, bathing this Buddha in a golden light

Mrauk U is much much quieter than the more accessible and better known Bagan.  However, the quiet was occasionally punctuated by the arrival of one of the ubiquitous “light trucks” which carry so many people.  These were transporting large groups of school students around the temples, and many of them had loud modern music blaring from speakers adding to the air of festivity of these groups.

In the temple I had found a beautiful spot, giving a panoramic view of Mrauk U and sat down to watch the scene peacefully.  Deep in thought, I hadn’t noticed one of these trucks arriving. The first thing I noticed was a stream of school students as they poured through the temple seeping out through the various exits and passageways.  And all making their way towards me.  Within moments I was surrounded by a cheerful, animated and enthusiastic group, asking me my name, where I come from and giggling at my responses.  They were eager to practise their English, but I am not sure how useful it is with my Scottish accent.  We all laughed together and before long they headed back to their van, to make their way to the next temple on their list.  Suddenly it was again very quiet.

Trying to make sense of the map, I used the quiet time also to plot my vague direction of exploration and before long headed off towards another group of temples.  On the way back, with the sun nearing the end of its day’s work in our part of the world, I found a little track up to a vantage point on the top of a small hill.  I scrambled through some scrub, on a dried mud path, very glad that this is not rainy season and arrived at a clearing where I stayed to watch the sun set, the mist form and the evening rituals, activities and tasks taking place before me.

On my way back, I stopped off at a little stall selling coconuts and spent a peaceful interlude, sipping at was to become my daily evening cocktail (coconut water) and watching what was going on around me.

Back at the hotel, after a delicious Rakhine tomatoey fish curry, I tried to phone home to say I had arrived safely and all was well.  The guide book had told me that there are only five phone lines to the town and with over 250 subscribers getting a line out is not easy.  After numerous unsuccessful attempts I headed back to my room, to settle down for the night.  My room was well equipped, and in addition to the hat and glow in the dark stars it had a well stocked fridge (no Andaman beer this time though) and a TV.  However there was only one channel and that was the one which the staff were watching in the dining room!  It switched from Star Movies to ESPN sports and on to Korean soap operas without warning, to my great amusement.  I watched part of “Spy Next Door” before it switched to a football match which gave me a good excuse to read.  The other great surprise which my room held was also revealed to me just before dinner.  I wanted to wash the dust off my feet and turned on the tap in the bathtub, bracing for the usual chill of water.  Within seconds though, the water from the tap was roasting hot to my utter delight as I realised that hot baths would be a further treat of my trip!  How unfortunate that I hadn’t brought any bubble bath with me!!  What a great way to round off a highly adventurous day!  I slept fitfully, as is usual thanks to Tamoxifen, dreaming bizarrely of being unable to find my room in the rain, a strange dream considering this is the middle of dry season.  I was also amused to hear gentle snoring from the room next door.  Until I realised that if I could hear gentle snores, my neighbour would surely be able to hear my not so gentle snores!

Christmas Day

There were few signs of Christmas as I started my day, and after a nice breakfast, I set off to explore more widely.  For the day, I had hired a bicycle so that I could get a bit further.

The day was unusually cloudy, but given how hot it can become in the daytime in dry season, this was perfect weather for cycling!  I had a look at the map, and headed off with little idea of where I was going or what was in store.  I followed a main track initially, and then just kept going, turning left or right along village lanes on the basis of what drew my interest and curiosity. Inevitably, after half an hour of what I thought might be a wide circuitous route, I was clearly very lost!  I was near a monastery so I stopped, parked the bike and sat myself down beside the road on a grassy spot and consulted my map.  The monastery was not marked and there was no other landmark to give me any clue as to where I was. What a glorious feeling! In no hurry to go anywhere, and able to just sit and soak in the sounds and activities around me I was in no hurry to move on.  First I needed clarification of which direction the town was, either continuing on this road, or turning off one of the lanes nearby.  As I looked up I saw three children heading towards me.  As they approached, I realised that one of them was holding what looked like a very angry cat.  This was no ordinary domestic tabby cat though, its ears were differently shaped and although it was the size of a cat, it was clearly a kitten of its species.  It was marked just like a little leopard and my first thought that this was in fact a leopard kitten.  I quickly realised that was not possible, and took some pictures of it so I could find out later what this animal was.

A monk approached, heading towards the monastery and was clearly not expecting to see a strange foreigner parked in the lane and he asked me my country.  Then he asked me if I was a Buddhist.  After my replies, I asked him which direction was the town and he pointed back to where I had come from.  Off he headed to the monastery, and I brushed the dried grass off my trousers and got back on my bike.  I continued to explore the back lanes, asking periodically the direction towards town.  It was nearly 12 o’clock when I started recognising the shops near the hotel and stopped off at a roadside stall for a cold drink.

I took advantage of this time to study the guide book map.  There were only 2 eateries mentioned in the book and I had already eaten in one.  The other was described as being in a teak house and sounded nice so I decided to set off and find it.  Easier said than done.  The map was rather confusing and I found myself repeatedly heading down the same road which was clearly not the right one, but persistently failed to find it!  So I started turning off down different roads, and keeping an eye out for somewhere for my Christmas lunch, preferably the Restaurant cutely named “For You”.  Before long, passing along yet another new road, I caught sight of a little place and saw the name “For You”!  Success!  It was beside a couple of parked buses and small stalls selling bus tickets so was in a rather noisy spot but that didn’t trouble me.  I went in, and was surprised that there was no one else there.  Ready to leave, a woman came up to me and I asked her if they were serving meals.  Of course they were, she smiled, and what would I like?  With no sign of a menu I asked for fish – the Rakhine staple and within minutes it was being served up, piping hot and smelling delicious.  And it was.  Simple, and utterly delicious.

Once I had finished I headed back to the hotel as one of the brakes on the bike had stopped working, leaving the one which was working on the Twang Arm side which was not so easy to use.  I took advantage of the time to consult the guide book again, and look at the maps.  It soon became very clear that the orientation of the map was rather different to the orientation of the actual town and the “For You” listed was nowhere near the bus park!  Another mystery which I resolved to solve at some point!

I the afternoon I headed off in a different direction, aiming to find a group of temples in the north eastern area of Mrauk U, especially seeking to visit a small hill temple called Pi Sei.  Following my nose, and asking directions at every temple on the way I soon found myself carrying the bike along a rough, steep and narrow trail.  It eventually brought me out on a main road, busy with women carrying wood,  bullock carts heading home, children playing, women carrying a variety of goods on their heads, villagers carrying water, young men playing chinlon (like “keepie uppie with a small woven bamboo ball) and monks walking along barefoot.

The road wound its way between a number of little hills, mostly topped with little temples and jungle.  The great thing about cycling is that you are able to cover quite a bit of distance, and pass through areas without feeling as if you are intruding.  The challenge is that there are so many fascinating moments and beautiful sights that you have to keep stopping, balanced at the roadside to take photos!  (I even managed to locate the “For You” restaurant which I had originally been looking for and made a mental note of how to get back there at some point.)

With all the spontaneous diversions it took me rather longer than I realised to get to the northern temples.  The sun was by this time sinking quite rapidly and I did not want to be lost in the dark.  Lost in the daytime is fine but lost in the dark is a bit more scary and a step too far towards more extreme adventure!  So reluctantly I turned back, deciding not to head back through the wooded track, and kept on the main road.  Sure enough it eventually took me to the town and I was soon back at the hotel parting company with my trusty bike!  I wandered round in the dusk to the coconut stall and slowly sipped my coconut cocktail, watching the sky turn various  shades of dark purple thanks to the cloudy sky.  Soon I was back in my room, pouring my second hot bath of the day, before heading to the restaurant for Christmas Dinner of fish curry!

Boxing Day

I had decided to hire a tonga, or pony cart for the day so that I could explore the more distant temples, including the ones I had not reached the day before, and to minimise the “getting lost” time.  I also made arrangements for a visit to the tribal villages for the following day, so that arrangements were in place in plenty of time.

After breakfast, the hotel manager rold me that my chariot was awating, in the form of her father, with his pony and tonga.  I told him which areas I was keen to see and we set off, with me rattling around the back of the tonga.  It was again cloudy and overcast, but dry and not cold.

Firstly we visited the Kothaung and Pi Sei temples and I spent a good bit of time exploring.  Pi Sei is a small, overgrown hilltop shrine with four Buddha figures (facing north, south, east and west) and with a single Buddha figure on the top, visible from afar.

I loved this little temple, and spent quite a while exploring, taking photos, contemplating and enjoying the 360° view.  I enjoyed the solitude and peace, and as I was coming down the hill, I met another tourist on his way up.  That is how busy it was!  We chatted briefly before heading off in different directions.

I spent a marvellous day, ambling through the villages, from temple to temple, climbing and clambering among ruins, walking respectfully and silently barefoot in larger temples, and all the while taking a ridiculous number of photographs.  It was as I clambered up a steep and overgrown path towards a rarely visited hilltop set of temples that I suddenly remembered how much I had been dreading Christmas.

It was almost dark when I returned to the hotel, and parted company with my gentle and kind guides for the day, man and pony.  There was just enough time for me to head round for my daily coconut water.  Outside the temple, beside the coconut stall one of the pickups was parked, music blaring.  Well actually, although I have quite a liberal and broad minded appreciation of music I am not sure that I would actually call it music.  There was a thumping bass, and a screeching voice yelling out expletive after expletive.  And not little mild swearie words, but the Big Naughty ones!! The students on this truck had the same enthusiastic smiles, and youthful exuberance but these were sporting extravagant mohawk and punk style hair styles along with black and purple make up!  It was an innocent and incongruous sight as they piled out of their truck and bounded up the temple steps, the swear words continuing to blast forth from the truck!

It was all part and parcel of everything going around me, which I absorbed along with the delicious nutrients in the coconut water, reflecting on a magical day.

As well as reflecting, I could also feel a nervous flutter as I had made a Big Plan for the following day.  If that went as hoped, I would be visiting remote villages and meeting some very special women.  That account needs its own space and that will be the third and final part of the adventure!

Pushing myself to my limits – journey to Mrauk U (Christmas Adventure Part 1)

I had enjoyed my adventure at Angkor in Cambodia this year enormously and found that it it boosted my post diagnosis confidence enormously. From the wheelchair days transiting Bangkok airport, I was off with a travel bag and exploring on my own. I have to say though, that if I am very honest, a break in Cambodia is perfect for boosting that confidence because it is neither physically nor logistically too challenging. You get on a flight, land in Siem Reap, waltz through immigration handing over your passport and pics in return for a full page visa, and then head out into the daylight catch a tuk tuk to your hotel and get ready to explore. Gentle yet exciting. My adventure to Mrauk U was a much more demanding trip. The journey was more complicated and physically demanding and the area far less touristed. I was travelling alone (through choice). And I was quite nervous about the whole adventure.

On 23 December, I had an afternoon flight to Sittwe. The timing was very welcome as I had been working up until the previous day and this enabled me to spend the morning packing and running out for last minute essentials such as mosquito repellent and loud toe nail varnish!  Finally, I put the last essentials in my bag, switched off the fan, closed my lap top ready to head off line and upcountry for a week.

After check in I had a moment of excitement when I saw that the café in the domestic lounge advertised that was an internet café, but that was short lasted and I learned that there was no internet in fact, but a set of three sleeping computers. It took me a few moments pondering why the café used a picture of a washing machine on its signage. Only to realise that it was actually an aerial picture of a coffee cup!

My flight to Sittwe was straightforward and on time. I was amused that the passenger in front of me had among his carry on baggage, a pair of fairy wings. I hadn’t realised that we needed to bring our own wings to fly on this airline!

The flight landed as the sun was sinking in the late afternoon. I booked into the hotel, arranged my early morning transfer to the jetty and then headed out to explore Sittwe town. I managed to get really lost, and eventually had to ask directions to get back to the main street and the hotel. And promptly went right back out again, to find somewhere to eat the famous Rakhine sea food. I managed to get back safely, and despite being tempted by “adventurer lager” in the fridge, I turned in early as I had to be up long before sunrise to catch the early morning boat to Mrauk U.

I did not sleep too well, anxious not to oversleep and miss my boat, and just after 5 am I was getting myself ready to check out and head to the jetty. I had been looking forward to the sunrise journey but the morning was very very misty and dank. Not typical winter season weather at all so still very dark. Speeding through the damp streets on a motorbike tuk tuk I was chilled but soon arrived at the jetty. The boat was waiting, and my first major challenge materialised in the mist in front of me.

I am used to getting on and off boats in Myanmar, and have boarded by a variety of different types of access – from sturdy bridges to flimsy thin planks. I have given up on pride and accept help now if I am not too confident about the access. So catching sight of a narrow pair of planks, slippery in the mist and carrying my travel bag and supplies, I hovered briefly at the edge of the plank before one of the boatmen took pity on me grabbed my hand. Within moments I was safely across and on the boat. Ready for five hours of upriver cruising before I had to worry about how on earth I would get off the boat at the other end!

Our departure was delayed due to the thick mist and we watched as the early morning river activities took place around us, small wooden boats appearing through the mist bringing people from neighbouring villages and returning with goods and fish from the morning market. Figures shrouded in thick shawls and even the occasional soul wearing a Santa Claus hat to protect from the cold damp air.

Eventually, the boat hooted, the boat men leapt into action unravelling the ropes, disconnecting the electric cable from the boat which had lit up the jetty, and removing the planks and we moved away from the Sittwe jetty. I had been on the boat over an hour and finally I was heading somewhere.

As we travelled upriver, the mist slowly lifted, revealing eerie images on the river and along its banks. The broad estuary gradually narrowed as we wove our way inland, along a complicated network of waterways. By lunchtime, there was a distinct change in the atmosphere on board as local passengers started to gather their belongings, and prepared themselves for arrival in Mrauk U. The hilly area in the distance, gradually came closer and soon it was possible to spot a few temples on the hilltops. A crowd was gathered at the jetty, bicycle side car trishaws, bicycles, motorbikes and a few motorcycle tuk tuks and their drivers anxious to transport the passengers to their onward destination.

I had been on the upper deck and the ladder to get there was almost vertical not to mention extremely narrow. So manoeuvring myself, with my travel bags in my good hand and Twang Arm being used to stabilise my steps, I managed to get myself to the exit. Where I was met with a plank which was slightly less narrow, and this time dry, but steep due to the water being high. I dithered for a moment, and again one of the boat staff grabbed my hand and I quickly bounced along the plank and onto the dry land of Mrauk U. I negotiated a trishaw to the hotel and within half an hour was unpacking my bags in a room with stick on “glow in the dark” stars arranged in the Great Bear formation on a deep blue ceiling. The wardrobe had the essentials, a dressing gown, a spare blanket, a hair dryer and a bamboo hat to protect from rain or sun, which ever is prevalent at the time! I quickly settled into the room which was to be my home for the next five nights.

Eager to see the ancient temple city and its surrounds, I picked up my little backpack, hat, guide book and note book and headed off into the town to find some lunch to fortify myself for some serious exploring.  And that story will be in Part 2!

It slipped my mind

Christmas has been an oddly emotional and strange time for me since I was diagnosed. When I first found the lump in September 2009, the first thing which came to my mind was that I would not be alive to see the coming Christmas.  When Christmas 2009 came, not long after in weeks, but after a new lifetime of surgery, treatments, needles, appointments, a whole new vocabulary and learning to live with the cancer mindset, I was incredibly emotional.  I struggled to hold tears in check when carol singers were singing a version of Jingle Bells in Myanmar outside our gate.  I crumbled again last year, when the carollers came into our house and my composure was just to difficult to maintain.

So this year, I felt the first wobbles as we approached Christmas and I saw the carollers outside neighbouring gates.  However, I left Yangon on the 23 December for my Mrauk U adventure and immediately was caught up in the immediate, making plans and exploring.

I arrived in Mrauk U on Christmas Eve and spent the rest of the day exploring on foot and taking a ridiculous amount of photographs.  On Christmas Day I hired a bicyce and expored the nearly villages and temples, getting lost a number of times and having a wonderful time.  I seemed to provide a great source of entertainment, asking for directions and questions, stopping for a cold drink in a roadside stall and returning to my hotel dusty and hungry for Christmas Dinner.


On Boxing Day, I hired a pony and cart to explore the further away temples and minimise the getting lost portion of the activity.  Towards the end of the afternoon, after a day where I saw only three or four other temple tourists the whole day, I was exploring the atmospheric ruins of a temple complex when I remembered.  I suddenly remembered that I had been dreading the approaching Christmas and its memories of not surviving to see Christmas 2009.  I remembered that I had been extremely fragile the previous year.  But something had shifted in my mind which put cancer to the side more than I realised and it completely slipped my mind.

Cancer is still very much in the forefront of my mind, and I am sure it will continue to be.  However, the fact that this memory of being so emotional and connecting it so clearly with Christmas has faded so much shows me clearly that my mind is healing more than I had realised.  For once I am incredibly thankful that I forgot something!

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys have prepared 2011 annual reports for the blogs hosted on WordPress.  And what a lot of fascinating information there is there too!

For example, one of the top search items which directed folks here, was “Barbie toes”!!  And the most viewed and commented upon posts were the rants!  They were also the posts I agonised most over posting.

I look forward to the coming year of blogging  Thank you so much for your wonderful support and for virtually filling the Sydney Opera House four times!.


Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.