Women with tattoos on their faces, Chin State
Women with tattoos on their faces, Chin State

Chin State, Myanmar

In West Myanmar there is a region called the Chin State. I refer to this region as the Wild West, due to it’s remoteness and inaccessibility.  This region has been largely left alone and is only now starting to be developed for tourism. 6 hours by 4-wheel drive brings you to this hidden corner of Myanmar. It is home to women who used to tattoo their entire faces, sometimes their eyelids too. This tradition was banned in the 1960’s but carried nonetheless on until more recently, probably because most people weren’t aware of the law.

We had to trek for over an hour to reach a village where we encountered our first tattooed faces. We were informed that it took about 3 days to have their face tattooed and was, unsurprisingly, very painful. It was generally done once a girl reached puberty. The bark from green pines was heated and the smoke captured in a mud pot. This was mixed with bean leafs and the liquid was injected into the skin using the thorn from a cane plant.

There are 3 religions in the Chin State – Buddhism, Christianity and Animism. Islam is no longer recognised and muslims have been forced to leave the country or change their faith. Most people are Christians but maintain their animist faith.

Mindat is the nearest town. It sits high up on a hill and has an impressive monastery, probably the most colourful that I’ve seen. Some of the houses are equally colourful and a blend of old traditional stilt huts and modern concrete blocks with blue or red corrugated iron roofs. There is, unfortunately, a bit of a drinking culture. Whisky and beer seem to be the drink of choice among the young and millet wine among the older people. I guess this is driven by boredom. Electricity, running water and the internet are almost non-existent except in the towns meaning that most of the Chin people find solace in alcohol.

Despite bring the poorest state in Myanmar, the people seem quite content and always offer a smile. They don’t ask for money when you take their photo but a contribution to the village seems to be welcome. Everyone was well fed and the markets are full of a huge variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Less and less people dress in traditional costumes which is disappointing from a photographic point of view, but understandable. Actually, you are more likely to see tribes in traditional costumes around Inle Lake.

Most of the older people smoke pipes which are considered to be a status symbol, and chew on Thibur which is a kind of nicotine juice. (There’s a lot of spitting in the Chin State!)