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!