A trip up the Lemro river to the Chin villages to see the old women with tattooed faces was a special day.
We found a guide mostly by accident, he was hanging around the entrance of a hotel a friend was staying in and he overheard us talking about our plans. He offered to take us and as there didn’t seem much other choice (trying to get there alone is not an option!) we made the plan to meet him at sunrise the next morning. Turned out he was a great choice!
His name is Aung Zan or ‘Mr Fix it’ (see details below), definitely seems like some sort of used-car salesman at first, but under the tough exterior was a genuinely nice guy.
After a very very bumpy half hour tuk tuk ride from Mrauk U town, we arrived at a random boat yard to get on our tiny little boat which had 5 wooden seats in single file.
Side note: As we passed the different villages on the way to the boat yard, the people looked different, more indian decent and the women were wearing burkas. Aung Zan explained that these were muslim Rohingya villages. There is a lot of conflict in Rakhine state between the very extremist Buddhists and the Rohingya people, violence is common. Aung Zan wouldn’t elaborate for fear of saying to much, however a bit of research once we had left Myanmar gave some insight into it. More info on that conflict can be found here.
The water was calm and the boat ride was so peaceful and relaxing and being sat in a row of single file tiny chairs really gave some good time to contemplate things instead of having to chat to other people.
We passed a few tiny villages on the river banks where kids were swimming, people were bathing, washing clothes and cows were drinking. Everyone was friendly and shouted and waved at us as we passed.
We saw plenty of fishing boats however not a single other boat of tourists the whole day. This really surprised me, but felt nice.
Around half way through the boat trip (which in total took 2hours-ish) we stopped to buy some ‘presents’ for the Chin women, sort of like a peace offering or like you would bring dessert if you went to someones house for a dinner party, it’s just polite. We bought enough betelnut to fill a plastic bag and some cigarettes for them.
It was slightly awkward on arrival to know how to act, we didn’t want it to be the zoo-like circus experience of the long-necked women at Inle Lake. But our guide was great and introduced us to the first woman we would meet with the tattooed face and her family and broke the ice with some jokes about silly tourists. She was really shy, although opened up slightly once we gave her the betelnut. The rest of the family seemed happy to see us, there was, as usual, tons of kids that seemed to come out of nowhere who loved having their pictures taken and seeing them back on the phone.
We walked around the village, saying hello to random strangers who would come out their huts to greet us and meeting another couple of women with the tattooed faces. Some tattoos had faded, others were still quite black.
The villages are just wooden huts in the jungle on the river banks, very basic. We were taken to one of the huts and offered tea and a chat, which was awkward given the obvious language barrier. But we cooed over the baby and so did they, and that was some form of communication.
Some of the women clearly didn’t want us there, others just played along for the free stuff, a couple of them were genuinely friendly and interacted with us and chatted.
Only one of the tattooed face women that we met was really in a chatting mood and seemed happy to see us. Of course there was still the language barrier, but she was captivated by the size of the breasts of one of the girls in the group and kept grabbing them. We all laughed. She was showing us the huge holes in her ears and I showed her my belly button hole, it was so hilarious for her she just kept poking it (or maybe it was my belly pudge she was laughing at) but for us it was just really nice to communicate and have the back and forth interaction with this lovely old lady, you could forget for a moment her face was a tourist trap.
One thing I noticed all the face tattooed women had in common was disliking photographs being taken of them. Maybe they just didn’t want to feel like they were in a zoo, or there could be a different reason….
It was unclear whether the tattooed faces were a sign of beauty or not, we heard a couple of contradicting stories.
1) tattooed in the war to make them ugly so don’t get raped 2) sign of beauty, only for richer families.
The first reason could explain why none wanted their photo taken, if the whole life they have been told they are ugly. I know i hate my photo taken at the best of times but least of all when I don’t feel good about myself.
One of the warmer women mentioned to our guide that it was ‘too much’ with the photography. A snap-happy Malaysian guy in our group with a suped up camera just wouldn’t get out of her face. Secretly I wish I could have taken many more photos whilst still feeling comfortable about it, he must have some great shots! But, respect and the experience is more important.
TIP: ‘Apuyea’ – means pretty in the language of the tattoo face women. The only word we learnt that day. Use it 🙂
Photos coming soon – keep checking back for updates.