Where is John Lama? travel blog

My Burmese guide Zaw and our driver Thet in front of our...

This was the first sign we were leaving the modern world behind.

There were very few vehicles around. Most were overcrowded buses filled with...

A lot of Chin State could have been America in the 1700's.

Here is a typical village, with no electricity or running water.

The scenery was spectacular. You can see a field of sunflowers in...

The locals make an alcoholic beverage from a sap collected from these...

Our ride to Chin State was about seven hours from Bagan. The...

And the rest of our driving for five days was on unpaved...

 

Rice paddys were a common sight here.

This is the first Chin woman I saw with a tattooed face....

We took a hike to the top of Mt. Victoria, the third...

These flowers, which the locals call mountain lotus, were in bloom all...

The official Chin State flower is the rhododendron. I am used to...

A local man was walking on the mountain with a chicken in...

This is a mythun (mee-toon), or mountain cow. The Chin people have...

The women near our first town of Kanpetlat had facial tattoos that...

The people here see very few foreigners, so the kids were shy...

The women here like their pipes, filled with locally grown tobacco.

Almost all the women here over 40 have their faces tattooed.

Playing a flute with your nose is another Chin custom. I swear...

 

Mom and her two kids taking home some firewood. Everyone here, adults...

My Chin guide Ley Naing was friends with this older woman. She...

Zaw suggested we bring medicines for the adults here as gifts since...

She is carrying some kind of watermelon on her head.

I tried to carry it as well, but I couldn't balance the...

There are only two places to stay near Mt. Victoria. Our lodge...

Breakfast with (from right) my Burmese guide Zaw, our driver Thet, and...

A shop literally filled with rice!

Boys showing off their slingshot skills.

We visited this family in their home. Check out that pot-bellied Chin...

It is easy to tell the young boys from girls since they...

Grandma is sporting a different style of facial tattoo, with a design...

Mom and one of her kids in the one-room house. You can't...

 

I couldn't communicate much with the family, but they were cool with...

The girls have homemade lipstick and makeup/sunscreen made from bark called thanakha.

 

We also brought sweets and toys for the kids.

It seemed like every woman under 30 had at least one child...

These kids are poor. This little guy really liked his truck made...

 

Some of the girls were totally charming.

Check out this baby pig! I tried to pet him, but the...

Once you are seven or eight, you can start carrying around your...

Enjoying some quality time with her baby and a nice pipe.

How beautiful is this woman with babies in front and back?

 

This girl and her brother are crushing corn kernels to make cornmeal....

At eight years old, this girl is in charge of the household...

Now she is sorting the kernels and the shells.

And finally she and her friend pound the kernels with rocks to...

This old man is making a sheath for the knives all the...

One of my favorite women. She is great!

Check out that attitude!

 

That winding strip you see from left to right is our dirt...

 

My local Chin guide Ley Naing just had his first baby last...

Ley Naing invited me to the baby naming party at his house....

The women tend to hang out together here in the kitchen. Notice...

This woman is making and handing out a local alcoholic drink that...

Me and grandma. She was all smiles, and seemed to like sitting...

Everyone had their meal in another room, eating with their right hand...

We went to visit some other villages in the area that could...

We met many Chin people along the trail, some carrying what looked...

Basket strap over the head and pipe in hand. A typical pose...

When you get to some of the more remote villages, you see...

This young woman is 22. Isn't she beautiful? She had her tattoo...

This is a typical Chin man. They all carry that small woven...

Another young woman with her face tattooed.

 

This girl looks just like her mom.

When you get out of the two towns in Chin State, there...

It was great to have the Chin guide with us since the...

 

Ley Naing knew this young woman of 19. She was very sweet,...

 

 

More kids carrying kids.

 

This guy, who was nice enough to show me his homemade bow...

We stopped by a school in a little village. I spoke to...

The children stood up and recited their English lesson for me. They...

Look at this cutie with a basket of huge avocados!

 

My Chin guide said this woven thing on the side of the...

This is a graveyard of stone pillars. Apparently, if someone sacrifices three...

Underneath each one are pots filled with ashes of different deceased family...

We also brought soccer balls to give out. The kids here have...

Zaw also suggested that we bring marbles, which the kids loved. This...

 

No shortage of kids here.

Another Chin woman with the green tattooed face and big earrings.

Look how tall I am!

 

We met this very nice couple and gave them a bunch of...

 

 

These women are chopping banana tree for a big gathering. As usual,...

Check out grandma with the tattooed face and water bong pipe. Nice!

 

She must have really liked that pipe since she was puffing on...

Ley Naing convinced her to go put on some traditional giant earrings.

These things were as big as dumbbells, and looked just as heavy....

Dinner in Mindat where there is no electricity except for generators.

I was curious how you can cook for a restaurant with no...

Monks in the morning going through Mindat (barefoot) with their alms bowls,...

I was lucky to be around for the annual Chin national day....

There was also a mountain cow tied up near the stage. I...

Many of the older people wore traditional dress to the event.

Another green tattooed woman with her pipe.

Typical scene of people hanging out and cooking.

Driving back to Bagan we passed some spectacular scenery.

The little huts in the middle of fields are used by farmers...

Lots of sunflowers and palm trees in Chin State. Nice combo.

We did about six hours on roads like this driving back to...

Never seen this before, a tall retaining wall built by shoving logs...

During the rainy season in the summer, this long wooden bridge is...

A traditional Chin hairstyle, long hair in a bun on top, and...

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This eight year-old girl and her little brother are hard at work...


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.



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