The Chin tribe with face tattoos in remote Chin state, Myanmar

The Chin – Hunting Grounds and Face Tattoos

Hung Shwe is armed with well-worn flip flops, a pink girl’s beenie, a slingshot, bow and arrow. If anyone could show me the hunter’s path to the summit of Mount Victoria, he can. We barely have any water, and the path will torture us uphill for roughly eight hours. The fact that this trail hasn’t been touched by any foreign toe yet, tickles my sleeping warrior genes.

A gun shot reverberates – one wild boar less I suspect. Myanmar’s Chin State is a peaceful area, though most of its hunters roam the region with a rifle. Consistently in search of a decent prey. Even the few bears which are left are no longer safe, because the Chinese are keen to get the furs and gall bladders for their occult medicine.

On the way, we are crossing path with a pack of other huntsmen. As I’m gazing at the indefinable claws hanging out of their bags (the rest of the prey remains hidden), I suddenly understand that the Chin inhabiting the remoter areas feed on whatever sneaks around. Occassionally, Hung Shwe strechtes the rubber band of his slingshot while chirping a common bird sound. Unfortunately his stones don’t hit anything. The birds seem to know the unsuccessful Hung Shwe, because the potential prey preserves unimpressed its position. The spectacle repeats itself until my hunter runs out of stones. I’m sighing – if we ever find shelter, I certainly don’t expect a festive dinner. After the 8 hours of climbing, we stand on top of Mount Victoria, Chin State’s highest mountain, where the sun is about to set behind faraway Bangladesh. On the other side, the distant ridge which we’ll eventually reach in less than four more hiking hours.

Since my gear is basically not existing, I modify the phone into a flashlight as Hung Shwe again suggests taking a short cut through the bushes. Finally, after some more blisters and scratches we reach rustic Htang Shwe where we knock on the shack’s door of Hung Shwe’s relative Marty. Our elderly host for tonight is obviously pleased to welcome some guets, peering around in the sleepy village, I assume visits must be quite rare. Granpa lifts the pan lid – apparently to prepare his invitee mentally. Somehow, the indefinable claws and their indefinable body made it into this very house. I grab one of the four (six?) legs and nibble on its rubbery skin, while observing Hung Shwe, who joyfully shreds through one of the other legs including the bulging skin and the tendons.

As the sun raises we make our way back to Mindat. Partly on the gravel road, which offers a “Mount Victoria quicky” for package tourists. As the bush next the road spits us out, a chief from the department of transport in Nay Pyi Taw gives us a suspicious look. Even though he seems quite busy checking the labor of his underpaid workforce who is currently knocking rocks or cooking tar on a bonfire, he’s available for a chat. „The street must be extended to make room for the big buses,“ he explains. These days Chin state is becoming a new hot spot for tourists. We’re not ready to proceed yet, since Hung Shwe is being asked to pose for the city dweller and to explain him the principle of bow and arrow.

Back in Mindat. The market lady weighs her beef jerky against two XL batteries and calls out the price, a young boy grabs Mama’s tobacco pipe and starts puffing, meanwhile I wait for my buddy Jochen from Uncharted Horizons at the suggested meeting toint; The nose flute concert of the 88-years old Yun Eian, a well-known icon of the Magan ethnic group. Shortly after, I find myself sitting in a food stall to enjoy some chopped birds and grain wine, while working on our rough plan for the upcoming days. We’re eager to explore new areas, new villages. Protected by a corps of problem-solving ninjas on motorcycles, we cruise over rocky hills and down to valleys while passing through the dreamiest hick towns. Obviously, the modernity has overslept the past 60 years here. Children are cheerfully rolling motorbike tires and attend the christian led schools while their energetic parents are working hard every day on their millet corn and rice fields.

Anyone who ventures on these trails by motorcycle is either masochistic or ready for the next motocross. Rain sets in, motivation fades. We are stranded. As we sit down the whole village comes together, except for a chicken trying to escape its destiny. More “organic” couldn’t be possible. Nevertheless, the more organic those free-range chicken are, the more it reminds me on a former kickboxing champion or a gifted marathon runner being barbecued. The pack leader distracts from the tough meal by playing Burmese pop songs on the campfire. On the way back to Mindat we face some struggle; we run out of gasoline, wheels bend, oil pumps break. However, also this is part of the adventure.

One day later I set off again. My new guide Naing Htang draws a sketch on a piece of paper, it will serve as a map. We cruise along stacked buffalo-skulls whose owners worhip the animal heads to the spirits. Following ancient traditions, the Chin prepare themselves for life after death – to enter Monu Mountain. For each sacrificed scalp a new buffalo will be waiting in the next life. Therefore, some sacrifice herds in hope to gain more later on. Real animists even dig their own grave. The size of the stone arrangement determines the size of their future house. The Chin, however, remain modest – I have not yet discovered five-story tombs with an attached pool. Not yet. While the men are worshipiing for future homes and herds, their wives tattoo their faces. The facial tattoos represents their ethnicity, only who wears a tattoo gets admission to Monu Mountain – Others tell the story that the Chin ladies wanted to scare the Burmese princes with facial tattoos. Chin women were coveted concubines back in the days. Depending on the clan, one of 17 different patterns (lines, dots, crescents, spider webs or completely black) decorates the female heads. Since 1964, the tattooing has been banned by the government, which is the reason we won’t see any tattooed girls. Naing Htang thinks it might come back in fashion, since some women are campaign for the revival of their almost thousand-year-old tradition.

Rain again. Again mud. Branches flash through the mist. Sometimes the path is visible, but mostly it isn’t. Naing Htang bravely holds the 10-centimeter wide track. At our right, the abyss is waiting. A few hunters on motorbikes slip while passing us, fall, rise, fall again. After six hours up and down, a village shows up. Naing Htang proudly announces, I’d be the first foreign visitor after the Japanese invaders. The local priest Mana Buu lets us spend the night in his house and serves everything the kitchen has on offer. The scene could hardly be more touching. After a decent meal, Mana Buu wraps us into a blanket and sings a song with his museum-ready wind instrument. I’ll be missing this area.

Some days passes until I continue my exploration in the area of Rakhine state. It’s advisable to hire a guide, since the language barrier is definitely an issue. Nevertheless, I’m scouting for the one who is able to lead me to less frequently visited Chin villages along the Lay Mro River. “Can you do it?“ I’m asking Aung Zan (alias Mr. Fix-it). “Yes,” he replies without any doubts, scribbling a map. An hour later we lose ourselves in the jungle. Two kids armed with slingshot guide us back to the right path. In the first village, an euphoric boy seems to have been eagerly awaiting our meetup for too long. Instantly he starts performing a little dance with spear and shield. The news spread and so the village chiefs organizes drums, festive bandages and rice wine. With gentle pressure I’m being asked to join the dance, to drum and to entertain the pack. The whole village breaks out in laughter – Entertainment from visitors for locals – a new travel concept? We continue our journey, passing through picturesque bamboo houses, shaking countless hands. Strong hands. Hands that have been shaped in bamboo plantations for decades. Each dweller of the region chops, processes or ships the giant grass. The market is immense; Snacks, furniture, clothes, building materials, fuel, cosmetics. The resident Chin have built up a small monopoly along the Lay Mro river. Most fascinating are the monstrous floats made of bamboo including temporary sleeping huts and improvised kitchens gondeln past us. How clever! I’ve never seen goods carrying goods.

We follow the river upstream to Khin Chng. In contrast to their animistic neighbors, the Chin living in Rakhine, are fellow christians or buddhists. They lack of hunting instinct and rarly believe in a afterlife in Monu Mountain. Therefore, the facial tattoo cult here is explained more pragmatically; The pretty Chin-girls wanted to deter Burmese tugs or Japanese invaders by scaring them off. Here it remains uncertain, whether the extinction of the tattoo artist, the ban on the government or the Thanaka lobby is responsible for the dissapearing culture. Further up, in a village called Phalt Chen people welcome us already on the riverbank. We are the first guests from outside. Hence, a barrel of Chin wine is already waiting for us (hardly surprising, because the locals start and end every day with sipping from the huge pot). The incomparable hospitality of the Chin amazed me for weeks. I’ve been offered so many times to stay ten more days without paying anything, to eat with them and of course, to drink with them.

Enjoy the gallery of “the chin black & white portraits” or the color version “the chin color portraits”.