It was a hot Saturday afternoon in the mountain village of Mindat, Burma, when I first saw the stout black mithun bull, hybrid of a wild gaur and a domestic cow.
A tiny, stooped crone approached me, her face patterned with the scalloping blue tattoo favored by the Chin tribe in this village. Smiling, her eyes lost to the wrinkles of age, she pressed a section of bamboo filled to the brim with khaung yay (fermented millet wine) into my hand.
Too soon I was noticed by a chubby scion of the host family, clad in white shirt, red longyi (sarong) and feathered headdress. He tugged genially at my arm, grinning, his teeth and lips reddened by the wad of kun-ya (paan) he was chewing. Directing a stream of red saliva away from me, he clutched me firmly by the hips and we joined the dance circle.
I kicked and hopped along to the syncopated rhythm, one hand on the shoulder of the woman in front of me. But after one round I wriggled away, lifting my cup of wine to my partner in a friendly toast, and returned to my spot in the shade.
My husband and I had arrived in Mindat from Bagan the night before, after nine hours in an open-air jeep bumping along sand tracks and broken pavement, past men checking their taps in the top fronds of sugar palms, across rickety bamboo bridges replacing those washed away by last year’s floods, through arid plains and fertile green valleys, and finally upward into the pleasant coolness of the Chin Hills.
Chin State Day
Shortly after dawn on February 20, the official date for Chin State Day since 1951, children and youth began gathering in schoolyards. By 7:30 they were headed to the fair grounds. Leaving our perfectly fried eggs to grow cold, we dashed out of the teashop where we were breakfasting when we heard the drummers.
The parade ranks swelled with families as they marched through the streets, faces alight with excitement, separate groups meeting and merging below the bannered entrance to the park. Once inside, they stood in orderly lines while the elderly rested on plastic chairs set up in front of the stage.
And then, it was time for the real festivities to begin. A village elder selected a handful of well-dressed children to stand with the ranks of honorees under the festival banner.
A short, but serious speech ensued, though many in the crowd were already too antsy --or maybe too tipsy--to stand around listening. A moment of silence and then helium balloons, pink, purple, blue, yellow, were swept up into the sunshine and away over the valley.
Keep the Kulture
As with any good festival, more speeches were needed. Ten gentlemen strode on stage to intone about pride in Chin State, the continuance of Chin culture, education and health improvements the current Chin State administration planned to implement. The famous tattooed Chin women flowed around, quietly acknowledging their own notoriety when asked to stand for a photo. Tribesmen peered down gun barrels, comparing rifle qualities.
We wandered the grounds until we noticed a group of tattooed women and elderly men next to some spiky white posts. “Just symbol. In every village Chin make animal sacrifice in front of posts,” our guide Saw said. “To Nat.
As soon as I was part of the circle, a section of bamboo filled to the brim with khaung yay was put in my hand. Another Chin woman approached carrying a plate heaped with shredded chicken laced
By late morning we needed a break from the continuous millet wine and circle dancing in the fair grounds. Saw grabbed a local friend and we went for a wander through the nearby farming village of Paun Au, built on the steep hillside below Mindat.
Narrow footpaths led us between bamboo-mat huts where chickens scratched and families sat in the porch shade sorting beans or repairing tools. Passing small plots of maize, here and there a banana, mango or papaya tree, we stopped at the village cemetery. Each plot was defined by a low stone shrine made of three slate legs supporting a slate slab roof, all of them pushed up against each other.
On the way back to Mindat, I sought refuge from the heat inside a noisy Paun Au teahouse. Stepping inside, I stood for a minute, relishing the cool air drying my sweaty face. A radio twanged somewhere out back. My eyes had barely adjusted to the darkness before I was surrounded by drunk revelers.
They fluttered around me like moths, beaming at me with teeth and lips glistening with red kun-ya saliva. I was a fresh excuse to take a swig or ten from the plentiful wine jugs stacked on every flat surface. One man, a gracious if tottering host, shoved a bottle at my face. When I smilingly shook my head he grabbed me for a quick whirl to the back room music, tripping over the passed out bodies prostrate on the floor.
Though for a moment I longed only for sunlight and the dusty road back to the park, I couldn’t help catching Chin State Day fever from the dazed and happy group of drinkers in the hut.
Which is why I was already slightly anesthetized when we ambled into the shaman’s courtyard, and were welcomed by his extended family to what turned out to be the pre-eminent sacrifice of the day. Through the afternoon, families arrived with bowls of vegetables to add to the upcoming feast. Late into the night the hosts continued to receive all comers, ladling a bubbling ragu of mithun chunks swimming in a sauce thick with tomatoes and onions, into every bowl presented at the stew pot.
Drinking with the Shaman
While some spent the evening hours eating and drinking with the shaman, back at the park, groups of traditional dancers took the stage to present their variations on Chin-style dances. Singers crooned ballads, and tapes blared out Burmese pop and rock for the young people, whose traditional interests were reduced to the next sip of khaung-yay.
Eventually, reluctantly, dancers, singers and audience dispersed or collapsed right there to sleep on the ground, drifting into the tea shops after sunrise to sip coffee, nurse hangovers, spit red streams of kun-ya, and make plans to meet again in February 20, 2013.
When: Unlike many of Burma’s tribes, the Chin celebrate their national day on a fixed date, rather than according to moon cycles. It is always on February 20. At present the Burmese government requires foreigners to hold a permit and be accompanied by a guide to enter Chin State.
However, many guides do not wish to go there, because they don’t speak the language, so plan your trip well in advance. You’ll want a guide who’s comfortable in the area, likes the people, knows locals who can bring you into the side villages and who will manage the paperwork to get your permit before you arrive.
How: I can personally recommend two independent guides for this trip. Travel agencies in Bagan and Yangon also can arrange the trip. However, I urge travelers to go with a private guide if possible, not only for the more personalized service, but because doing so puts money on the ground, with the local people, rather than with an agency that possibly has government ties.
My personal pick: Mr. Saw Myint Naing (call him Saw), a superb adventure guide with whom we spent a month. Cell: 95-9 49292258. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.toursmyanmar.com.
Where to stay: Mindat has four lodging options: Victoria Guesthouse and Nawarat Guesthouse are both good, clean examples of the simple Burmese hostel, with basic rooms offering two cots with a pillow and blanket. The
The nicest lodging in Mindat is a couple miles from town, at Mountain Oasis Resort. This new offering has three lovely, spacious cottages with verandas and attached bathrooms, set in a quiet pine forest off the main road into town. They do not serve any food and rooms are $80 a night. While each place does have a phone on the premises, none speak anything other than Chin or Burmese; your guide will call on your behalf to reserve a room.
Where to eat: All Burmese villages offer several restaurants. The best one in Mindat by virtue of its cleanliness, is Myoma. You might also try Shwetaungtan restaurant, located on a hill above the market. Both serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, while at teashops you can sample a traditional Chin breakfast of rice noodles with pieces of mithun and chunks of tomato.
Getting there: Buses ply the long, dusty, broken pavement between Nyaung U and Mindat. However, your guide can arrange a car and driver if you prefer.
Dina Bennett is a travel writer who lives in Walden, Colorado. Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal Second Acts, she records dispatches from her journeys and the Colorado ranching life on her website www.dinabennett.com.
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