Ever since I came to Myanmar I was intrigued by a far-away region Chin – its remoteness, mountains and women with tattooed faces. So, when a friend asked if I wanted to join her and her mysterious friends for a 6-day hike around Mindat at Christmas time, guess what my answer was.
I’ve spent days on buses (10 days in total in a moving vehicle travelling around Myanmar in fact), so the long journey didn’t discourage me. With Leila, Ben, Julia and Josh, we decided to take a break from buses in Bagan and enjoy one night with the fine touch of civilisation. After this we would be sleeping in homestays and eating basic (albeit delicious) meals. Early next morning, a taxi picked us up in the hotel, we picked a new member of our gang, Kavita and drove to Pakokku together. After leaving a pair of locals on the bus station because our bus company overbooked the vehicle, we were ready for a 6-hours journey up the mountains.
You arrive to Mindat when you arrive to Mindat
Time in Myanmar is subjective and prone to change, so we were not given an answer of our time of arrival to Mindat – the gate to Chin state as they call it there. Unsurprisingly, our somewhat chaotic arrival to Mindat trying to locate our guide Kee was a good start of the adventure. Kee eventually found us and together with all of our local guides (& soon-to-become friends) we headed for lunch. A neat local restaurant (one of the three in Mindat) fed us with a home-made vegetarian food before Kee & al. drove us to the 11th Mile to start the hiking. Only 2 hours of walking downhill to warm up. In few days, we would be crossing mountains and spending hours on trails under the scorching sun. Some days would be easier than others, but luckily, Hlaing Hlaing and Tong Naing transported our heavy backpacks on motorbikes so we would not need to suffer more by carrying those. Although they had joked how huge they were (they were not…), they always brought them safely for us to our homestays, passing by us with big smiles on their faces.
Village life as it is
Reaching villages was the best part. As much as I like hiking, I had definitely overestimated the difficulty of it in Chin state, so it took a few days for my body to adjust and for me to enjoy the good pain from it. In villages, our local hosts would welcome us and Hlaing Hlaing & Tong Naing cooked the dinner (surprisingly, Myanmar guys can cook, all meals were very delicious), while the others took care of our sleeping situation. Although we were out in the wild, I felt very comfortable because of all the service we got. Meanwhile, we usually walked around the village, experiencing the village life. Chin people are one of the friendliest people I’ve met in Myanmar. They would always giggle at our way of saying Naga Naya (greeting in Chin language) and we would giggle back. Some nights we would sit with them at a bonfire, sing songs and drink millet wine, others we would only drink millet wine and play darts at a local bar. Just before sunset, the whole village would watch their kids playing football against their counterparts from neighbouring villages. It was Christmas time, so the schools were closed and this was a way for families & friends to come together for this festive time.
It gets unexpectedly cold at the night in this part of Myanmar, sometimes down to 5°C, which was not a problem when we had arranged warm blankets and became one when we did not. Because of changing our plan and unexpectedly staying in Oung village, Naing Kee Shing and others from Kee’s crew had to be resourceful and find us blankets somewhere. Luckily, Leila and I discovered the secret stash of blankets at priest’s compound and we were all saved. With ‘only’ 2 blankets, that was the coldest night I had experienced during the trek. I did not complain, as I knew our tour guides had even less than that.
The Best Chin Village – Tong Daw
Having the blanket crisis in Oung freshly in mind, we were pleasantly surprised that at the next village, people came to welcome us with blankets in their hands. Although we felt exhausted after we had walked for over 8 hours mostly uphill to this village (not only it was the most exhausting day of the trek, we also got lost on the way, spending an hour finding the right way), there had been a rumour about a millet wine, which eventually came true. We enjoyed it with the locals at a bonfire, which went well beyond the sunset time. Putting all these pieces together, the awesomeness of the villagers and their lovely attitude shown when we were trying to understand each other, we pronounced this village to be the very best Chin village.
As I said, I was intrigued to see the ‘famous’ tattooed women. Soon I realised that I would feel as though I am offending them if I tried to secretely snap a picture of them. Afterall, having a tattoo on the face is nothing special when everyone else does. Since outsiders (even local Myanmar) would point the tattoed faces out as being something special, women are more self-aware of that and while some are proud, others feel embarassed being different. I would like to hear their fascinating stories without intimidating them with my camera, but for now I settled with observing these humble and shy women, how they behave within their communities, hang out with other women with the same or different tattoo. Most of the women are shy and would only smile at me (if I was lucky), some would be trying to get some money for a picture. I liked the women we met while hiking in the forest – they were hardworking, providing for their families and their faces shined with a certain charisma of being content and confident in their skin. The tattoo was an important intrinsic part of who they were and among their communities attentive to it anymore. Because not so many curious tourists or Myanmar locals come to these parts, they were not being harrassed by pictures or too much attention.
Chin state – a special place
It took me a while to write this post and partially because I couldn’t express why Chin won my heart. It might sound like a cliché, but the people around made this time in Chin special. Our hiking group itself – from which I only knew one friend before. Our tour guides who had our happiness always on their minds. The local people who joined us at bonfires and shared millet wine and dried miton meat with us. Strangers who smiled at us when we were passing by.
Then there was this clear solidarity. Despite of harsh life in the mountains, Chin people are loving and caring for each other – they reminded me a lot of Ladakhi people in the Indian Himalayas.
And not to forget the peacefulness surrounding us. Everywhere we looked the nature was showing off its best views.
And puppies! I forgot to mention that we met 25 puppies on average each day!
Few logistical details:
While we organised the trekking through Uncharted Horizons (FB page) (which was totally worth it, since we all were coming to this part of Myanmar for the first time and it was helpful to have everything arranged locally), it is quite easy to go on your own. There’s an overnight bus from Yangon (E-Lite company, ~15000 MMK), arriving to Pakokku in the morning – enough to take the bus at Pakokku bus station leaving at 9am for Mindat (~7000 MMK). The road to Mindat takes 6 hours, it’s slow and curvy, some people might feel uneasy, but that’s part of travelling in Myanmar. Arriving to Mindat, you can stay at one of the few guesthouses and ask to arrange local guides. Or just go hang out at one of the two popular restaurants: Myo Ma or Gopi and a guide will surely find you. The prices are usually around $20 for porters/day and up to $60/day for an English speaking guide. It gets cheaper when you’re a bigger group. Make sure you always tip your guide if they are pre-arranged for you, as the guides would usually pay a commission fee as well.
Bring warm clothes from December to February, locals wear wooly hats and heavy jackets, those were not necessary, but warm scarf, sweater and underpants are useful.