In Chin province west of Mandalay is a little mountain town called Mindat. It opened to foreigners apparently only last year and like many places in Myanmar it is still quite hard to access. One should expect a long bumpy bus ride on a small winding dirt road going up and up and up. But there are many reasons why you would like to get up there, from hiking around beautiful Mt Victoria to having a close insight of the interesting local life and culture. The main reason why we really wanted to travel to Mindat was to meet the fascinating face tattooed women who made this area known to the world. And you know what? This place litteraly blew our mind! So, are you ready to discover our favourite place in Myanmar?
In the heart of the face tatooed women’s kingdom
We wake up this morning with a stupendous view over the soft feminine blue curves of the surrounding mountains. The air is colder here and we can feel the grip of winter on our bodies. An unusual sensation after so many days spent under the heat of south east Asia’s blazing sun. Quentin is sick like hell, knocked out by a violent and abject turista, and has to remain in bed this morning. Mariette, nursing a cold, decides to let him rest all he can and go on exploring the city with Steffen who is just getting better from an eye infection. What do you mean, what’s wrong with us?
With Steffen, we set off to take a proper look at the local life. We find that the best way to do that is to follow a group of chatting ladies, veiled in lace, who lead us directly… To the mass! Indeed, a large catholic community is living there. Like the village of Cizhong in China where we made wine earlier this year, Mindat had been converted by French missionaries in the early 20th century. Today’s mass celebrates the Wise Men and a large crowd is gathered in the tiny church of the « Most Sacred Heart of Jesus ». Considerate believers kindly lead the both of us to the middle row, facing the shrine. A Roman catholic mass so far from Roma is a very interesting thing to witness and we absorb all we can of this peculiar atmosphere for a while, but as we are not quite the religious type (and anyway as we don’t get much of the ceremony since it is in non-subtitled Burmese not to mention that everybody is staring fixedly at us), we quickly grow uncomfortable and grab our first chance to leave to join the kids playing in the sunny churchyard. The ambience is much more relaxed there. We are winning a huge success among the kids, especially Steffen whose blazing hair makes him look totally weird and out of place here (we mean, more than usual of course)!
It’s a bit of a hustle when comes the end of the ceremony as a stream of people rushes out in the sun. Among them are many ladies displaying beautiful tattoos on their faces. Captivating! We wonder what their story could be.
At that moment, we are greeted by a small smiling man. He guides us to the roof top of an old crumbling never-achieved building from where we can get a 360° stunning view over the church, the village, the mountains… On the way, this kind history teacher tells us more about the tattooed ladies.
You see, during the time of Kings in Myanmar, they were used to travel the country and choose the most beautiful girls for their personal harems. They were carried away, never to be seen again by their families. The kings often chose girls from the Chin province, as they were renowned to be the most beautiful of Myanmar (and from what we saw, we can tell it is still true nowadays!). So their families decided to tattoo their faces very young to make them ugly and utterly unattractive to the kings.
But today, people travel from all around the world to see them because they think they are beautiful and fascinating with those tattoos! A nice revenge from their fate, finally.
Yes, funny that, but anyway today the tradition is getting lost. Before, every villages had their own tattoo patterns and skills, but it is all forbidden now. This tradition was pretty offensive to women’s rights, you know! And also very painful. Today, women can be beautiful again in the Chin province!
Back at the hotel, we find Quentin in deep conversation with the local doctor and his father! The dynamic young man has given Quentin the content of a whole pharmacy to put him back on his legs in no time! He offers to join him and his family in the afternoon for a visit of the Buddhist monastery. We are eager to accept! A few hours later, we jump aboard an old green jeep and off we go! On the way, we learn more about our young doctor and his father and life in Myanmar in general. They also promise to introduce us to the most famous tattooed lady of Mindat later in the day. Intriguing, isn’t it?
As for the monastery, it is not the most beautiful one we had the pleasure to see so far, but it is certainly worth the visit for one thing : the view you get from the top!
As promised, after the monastery, our doctor friend introduces us to the Star of Mindat. When we arrive at her place, an old and modest wooden house, she is not ready to be seen yet, and her grand daughters make us wait in the charming courtyard, amongst hanging clothes and running chicken. She finally appears, all dressed up and grand like a queen. We recognise her immediately. We saw so many portraits of her! Photographers from all around the world have come here especially to meet this amazing woman. She is truely famous! With a bit of a ceremonial, and with her grand daughters translating her every words, she tells us how much she is honoured by our visit and pleased to meet us. We find ourselves quite intimidated by this surreal character and are only able to stammer some silly answer like « oh please no, we are the ones honoured, we mean very honoured to meet you, your er… Your highness…! »
For she really looks like a queen, this beautiful 88 years old grandma, with her striking jewellery, small bare feet, warm toothless smile, her proud and clever shining eyes and her intense charisma! We are a bit speechless… That’s when she choose to start playing the flute… With her nose!
In the streets of Mindat
Next day, the plan was to go to the market, the usual best place in town to meet people and observe local life. But as it usually happens with plans, they don’t often work out. We are stopped on our way to the market by a curious agitation. As we get closer we realise it’s a wedding and because we can’t really get by unnoticed anywhere here, we are soon led inside the party tent and introduced to the happy couple. Well… Happy is maybe too strong a word. The bride is displaying her most beautiful fake smile and as for her husband, he just looks like he is about to be driven to the slaughterhouse. But whatever, nobody seems to notice or care, the parents and friends are super happy and we are fed enormous quantities of local breakfast made of curries, fruits, rice, smelling fish sauce and salads while loud speakers shouting the latest burmese hits try their best to get the wits out of us. If we weren’t fully awake already, now we are! After a time we finally manage to escape this somewhat intense experience. Outside the tent, it’s a lot quieter and we spend some time taking pictures of the motley crowd of curious people gathered around, trying to peek at the groom and bride.
We still have time to reach the market before noon. Another occasion to meet colourful characters and adorable kids! If some of them show a bit of camera shyness, they are usually very happy to be taken in pictures and especially proud when we show them the result !
But Mindat hasn’t showed us everything yet, we realise when walking around in the streets. This town is simply amazing! So are the people living there! Instead of a long description, what about having a look at the pictures below?
Mindat is also famous for its treks and day trips in the mountains, especially on Mount Victoria, the highest point of Chin province. Unfortunately, Quentin’s sickness didn’t not allow us to visit places outside of Mindat. But we had a great time exploring the streets, discovering the ambiance of the village, meeting some locals by sharing a little bit of time with them, witnessing a rope contest to choose the members of the local soccer teams, and last but not least, we enjoyed to go back on the roof of the abandoned building near the church to look at the amazing sunsets.
Do you understand now why we enjoyed this place so much? We would have loved to stay longer and are already planning to come back as soon as we can to this mesmerising province. Unfortunately for now we have to leave the mountains to carry on toward busy Mandalay. Don’t worry, it also has a bunch of wonders to offer!
See you soon!
M. & Mme Shoes
Faces of Asia
Going to Mindat :
- From Bagan : a little bit after the market, you must take a local bus under the tree near the roundabout (yeah, that’s very accurate information 🙂 ). In 1 hour it will drop you in Pakokku. There is apparently 3 bus a day, but the one we leaved 1h30 late, so make sure you check the scheudule before and take a lot of time ahead of you. In Pakokku, the challenge is to find the bus station to Mindat. It’s not the same one where you’ll be drop off. Check the map on the right to find the location. From there a mini van is going to Mindat every day at 15:30, and apparently there is a big bus with AC every morning at 6:30.
- From Mandalay : we haven’t take the bus from Mandalay to Mindat, but we did it from Mindat to Mandalay. So we suppose there is a regular direct bus service between the two cities.
Sleep in Mindat :
- Mo Pi Guesthouse at the entrance of the village propose some correct room for 20$/person. Shared toilets and bathroom with only cold water. Breakfast is included (cakes and fried bread with instant coffee). It’s not cheap, but probably the best option in Mindat. There is a cheaper guesthouse in town (10$/person), but its dirty and with no shower. Forget about Internet in Mindat.
The good point about Mo Pi Guesthouse is its adorable receptionist who speak a decent english and who will try to help you in any ways whatever you want to do in the area.
N°25 Main Road
Eat in Mindat :
- The Salt is a new reataurant in town proposing some local Chin specialities with french influence. Fodd is really good here, probably the best restaurant in Mindat, but do not expect a high level fancy restaurant… Prices are OK, but quantity in the plate will not feed a big foodie.
Kho Nu M’Htung Street
In front of Kum Hti Hall
San Pya Quarter
Tel : 070-70304 / 09440361109
Trekking around Mindat and in Chin state
- Mt Victoria Trekker is a trekking agency owns by Naing Kee Shein, THE best guide in the region. He’s THE reference when it’s about getting a guide. He knows every one, and every one knows him. He knows all the little villages, tracks, and secrets of Chin. He can speak Chin language, burmese and a nearly perfect english !
He’s also the one who create the trekking tracks in Chin state. He’s the creator of an amazing trek from Mindat to Mrauk U, and can guide you on it if you have the dough for it 😉
He also already guided some expeditions for professionnal photographers.
Facebook : Mt Victoria Trekker