Feb 22, 2007
|I met a couple in Sri Lanka, and as we got to talking about traveling, they mentioned they had been to Burma and loved it. I said I was heading there after India, and they strongly recommended that I visit a remote area of the country such as Chin State. I hadn't considered that before, and in fact the 400 page Lonely Planet guide for Burma only has five paragraphs on Chin State.
It turns out visiting Chin State is not entirely easy, which is why there are so few foreigners here. Not only is it difficult to enter Burma itself, the government requires you to apply for a separate and expensive permit to enter Chin State, and the approval process takes a month. You are also required to be guided by an officially licensed tour company. The couple I met in Sri Lanka recommended Columbus Travels and Tours. Columbus website
My contact Ohnmar at Columbus did a great job organizing my tour of Chin State, and she also arranged a number of my other flights and hotels in Burma. Ohnmar even rescheduled a bunch of reservations for me when I got sick in Mandalay.
The five day excursion to Chin State cost around $1,000. That seems expensive, but it included my meals and lodging, an all-wheel-drive Land Rover, the government permit, and three full-time people to take care of me: Zaw was my primary guide who speaks Burmese and English, Ley Naing is a young man from Mindat in Chin State and he can speak Chin, Burmese, and a little English, and our driver Thet took care of the Land Rover and our stuff. Being a big guy, Thet was also our muscle! Here we are at breakfast one day:
Visiting Chin State was like traveling back in time three centuries. We stayed in two small towns, Kanpetlat and Midat, and used them as a home base for exloring more remote villages. There were only a couple places for travelers to stay in these towns, and just one or two restaurants as well. We did have running water, but the electricity only lasted a few hours a day unless you had a generator. The beds were comfortable though, and my circumstances were much more luxurious than those of the people I was visiting.
It was great having our Chin guide Ley Naing with us. Not only could he provide a lot of background on Chin customs, being a local he could also expose me to more private people and activities to which an outside guide would never have access. Sometimes, I got the impression he would say things (in Chin) like "Come on Mrs. Smith, play us a song on your nose flute. I told my American friend how you are the best nose flute player in the village!" And it worked!
One of the most interesting customs in Chin State is the tattooing of women's faces. This practice originated during the Pagan Period nearly 10 centuries ago. It seemed that the king whose capital was at Pagan (now called Bagan) desired the beauty of the light-skinned Chin women, and carried many of them off in slave raids. The Chin began to tattoo their women's faces to make them less desirable to the king, and to be able to identify the women by clan when they were carried off.
The practice has been banned by the Burmese government, but most women here over 40 have the tattoos, and some remote villages still engage in the practice. I saw a number of women in their 20's whose faces were tattooed just a few years ago. My Chin guide Ley Naing was able to translate with these women for me, and they confirmed that the process was painful, but the discomfort wore off after a week. I also asked Ley Naing if his wife had her face tattooed, and he said no. I got the impression that the practice is still only performed within a few remote and very traditional Chin communities.
An interesting local custom is the requirement for Chins to take revenge to balance a wrong committed against them. Ley Naing told me a story (maybe more legend than fact) of a woman who had gone down to the river to draw water, and fell in and drown. Her husband took a length of bamboo to that river and filled it with water, drew his sword, and cut the bamboo in half, punishing the water for drowning his wife. Harmony was restored.
Chin State was a fascinating place. I have uploaded many photos and one video, so check them out.