Burma: Spending Time with the K’Cho, or Chin Women

Mindat, a cloudy mountain in the Chin state of Burma. Natalia Vildosolia photos.
Mindat, a cloudy mountain in the Chin state of Burma. Natalia Vildosolia photos.

My Burmese days with the tattooed women, the Chin

By Natalia Vildosolia-Garcia

Once upon a time, in the remotest highlands of Burma, there was an ethnic tribe who called themselves as K’Cho, better known as Chin or face tattooed women.

munn woman
Munn woman enjoying a smoke

In that region, the elderly women had stretched ears and tattooed their faces according to the 11th-century tradition. So according to the popular legend, during the time of Kings in Burma, they were used to choose the most beautiful girls for their harems, and the Chin women were renowned for being the most beautiful of Burma.

Consequently, their families decided to tattoo the faces of young maiden girls to hide the tribal women’s beauty to protect them from kidnapping. It seems like a forgotten story from past times, except is related in present times.

Because of this, this tradition was maintained since ancient times until the 1960s when the practice was banned, even though some were still practicing until the last tattoo was inked in 1998. In some way, these women have been mutilated in the name of protection from slavery, but some of them told us that after being inked they could not eat for some days because of swelling in the face, they said that was absolutely painful but despite this, they were proud because of their tradition.

Hunter with his handmade shotgun in th eMindat forest, Chin State, Burma
Hunter with his hand made shotgun in the Mindat forest, Chin State, Burma

Getting there

So starting the day very early in the morning,just to find the bus station in Pakkoku was a challenge,in this “jungle town “nobody spoke English and I had not any map on me to find the right location because it was not the same place where I was drop off the night before, after all, I finally found the right station and from there, there was a minivan that was going to Mindat every morning around 8.30 am, but mine was half an hour late.

The only access to that deep mountain town was through this jungle town one, and it was only possible to reach it during the dry season.

During the rainy season, it is not possible to go across some streams which do not have bridges.Fortunately, since 2013 you do not need a special permit to visit the Chin State, but even that you still need to show your passport in the Customs’ border.

During the journey that takes around six hours with one stop for lunch, when I was approaching this area I could observe how the tropical palm trees gave way to the tall pine trees lining the road while the distant blueness of the mountains was getting close.

Daali woman.
Daali woman.

I felt how the humid heat and sticky air were becoming more and more fresh and pure, a rare sensation after spending four months under the heat of South East Asia’s burning sun.  Even the expected long bumpy bus ride on a narrow, winding road going up, the journey was a wonderful vision of that scenery.

As soon as I entered the village, I began to see the faces I had come to see. Walking through the village searching for a place to stay the next two nights, I crossed some impressive elderly face-tattooed women.

Baskets and Knives for the Market

These women were carrying baskets and knives to put up for sale on the market, while some men were bringing along handmade shotguns on the streets, locals were still wearing Chin traditional dresses on and wore beautiful necklaces while some old women still had on enormous Chin traditional earrings.In the market is where all interesting local life and culture was going on.

In this isolated environs with no internet or wifi at all, the accommodations options were limited in this remote town.I was staying at Tun guesthouse -located 10 minutes walk from the market- where the room was very simple and with a strong musty smell, obviously with the bathroom outside, in contrast, I could see the hills from my room.

Getting to the remote Mindat.Chin State in Burma.
Getting to the remote Mindat.Chin State in Burma.

The plan was to go to the market to find something to eat but on my way I stopped and stared astonished at the delightful colors reflected on the enclosing peaks along with the twilight fog ascended from the silent blue confining mountains, falling in the village at dusk until the first rays of the sun when the peaks will be light up again.

All at once, the locals light themselves with candles and flashlights and just a few bars and Guest House produce their own electricity by generators.

Randomly, I met two girls that I had already met in a hostel of Mandalay, so we went together for dinner to a local restaurant where anyone could speak English but the menu was only in Burmese; we ordered boiled rice with vegetables and apparently, chicken.

These girls gave me some good tips for the next day about how to get a moto-driver guide with English, otherwise, I would totally miss the interesting things, also they warned me that five minutes before 22 the lights start to flicker just to announce the imminent complete darkness. Afterward, the stars began to twinkle firmly.

Deep in the mountains, life commences with the roosters crowing. I ran for my morning shower but when I opened the tap for water, ice cubes came out so I decided to not take a proper wash for the next 2 days. The weather was too cold here, especially at nights and at dawn.

*Local Life

After contemplating this spectacular landscape, pretty high in altitude -around 2000m- to sustenance a pine forest and usual bamboo, I went directly to the upper city for my instant coffee morning and breakfast in a small shop that was in front of the market, there was the best place to meet people and observe local life. They were constantly coming and going with their big baskets. The way K’cho people earn a living is practicing shifting cultivation, trapping, hunting, and logging.

I came across some of them very close and I could see the differents patterns of their tattoos because the K’cho minority -only in Mindat and Kanpetlet- is divided into three mainly tribes; Munn, Dai and Makang. Which are distinguished by different facial design tattoos.

Munn women have a series of small circles, making a half-moon shape on the cheeks, while Makang’s tattoo has dots all over the face, and Dai women have their entire faces covered in dots, you can not even see the color of the skin. Nowadays, this is becoming a dying tradition.When they die, this ritual will die with them.That was the main reason I came, to admire these captivating faces.

Getting around

When I was still having my breakfast, a guy with red tooth -because chewing the areca nut along with the betel leaf- came and ask me if he

M'Kang woman in Burma.
M’Kang woman in Burma.

could help me so and after bargaining for a while finally i got on the back of his motorbike and he brought me into the fields and forest to appreciate the rural life of very modest families and see how they were still hunting with bow and arrows, on our way to a very tiny village called Kong Hlay I could see women collecting medicinal plants in the fields.

When we got to this tiny remote village lost in the slope of a mountain -where most of them were Christian and the rest Buddhist or animist- I saw on the bamboo houses how were hanging skulls of animals adorning the facade.

After that, we went to the place of a friend of the moto driver for a cup of tea and they were explaining while the guy was translating for me, that in Mindat and the surrounding tiny villages are Christian because they had been converted by French missionaries in the early 20th century.

So you can find some Catholic churches around. In the animistic culture, they are worshiping the “Nats” -the spirits- so in every Chin village they make animal sacrifices outside the houses at least once during their lives and they are showing their sacrifices hanging the skulls on the facade of their houses and also marking in a wooden animist totem pole how many animal sacrifices were made in the family.

February the Best Time

The best time to see the rites of Chin culture is during their festival that takes place once a year in February.

Looking for medicinal herbs in Burma.
Looking for medicinal herbs in Burma.

In the animistic culture, they are worshiping the “Nats” -the spirits- so in every Chin village they make animal sacrifices outside the houses at least once during their lives and they are showing their sacrifices hanging the skulls on the facade of their houses and also marking in a wooden animist totem pole how many animal sacrifices were made in the family.

The best time to see the rites of Chin culture is during their festival that takes place once a year in February.

Suddenly, we realized that we had spent a lot of time visiting different houses in Kong Hlay Village, so we went back to Mindat. On our way back we stopped at different houses where some face tattooed women lived, they were very nice but always expecting some donations…

Finally, when I was back in Mindat I went for a little trek around alone just to see the highest peak known as Mount Victoria or Khawnu Mthum that lies in between Kanpetlet and Mindat.The day was coming to its end and the colorful dusk made a picturesque final of the day.

The next morning I woke up with the first sunshine and saw this foggy light slipping between the blue curves of the bordering mountains and listening to the distance people praying, was a splendid way to conclude my small adventure in these recondite hills of one of the remotest parts of the genuine Burma.

Natalia Vildosolia-Garcia
Natalia Vildosolia-Garcia

Natalia Vildosolia-Garcia is a freelance Interior Architect and Photographer based in Barcelona.

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