Mrauk U – Tattooed Faces Don’t Tell the Story


Mrauk U, Myanmar

The road to the jetty in the Muslim village

So we were off to try the Chin Villages trip again and this time it went off without a hitch. (And no I did not see the boat vendor to give him the evil eye). First stop was Moe Cherry to pick up lunch for the trip (apparently there were no restaurants in the areas we would be visiting on the trip north to th Chin villages….)

We then drove back down the narrow little road past rice fields being harvested and through the Muslim villages to the launch point for our boat. To get to the boat, we walked down a long muddy road past wooden houses on stilts to the rider where our boat awaited us. We climbed aboard and off we went for a two hour trip up river to the first of three Chin Villages we would visit.

Departing the Muslim village for the Chin villages

So a little bit about the area we were going to visit. We were not traveling to Chin State, but some traditional Chin villages that were built along the Lemro River in Mrauk State. The attraction in the villages is the dwindling population of elderly women who have tattooed faces, a Chin practice that ended some time ago.

The practice of tattooing the faces of Chin women with spider web like markings dated back centuries and was done to prevent non Chin ethnic groups from kidnapping Chin women for brides. While the idea of taking pictures of elderly women purely for the novelty of seeing their faces tattooed was a bit off putting to me, i was assured that the women had made a conscious decision to use their unique features as a way to attract tourists and earn much need money for their families and villages.

Playing soccer on the river bank
Farming village on the river banks






The trip up river was uneventful with children playing on the river bank, families planting peanuts, women washing clothes and the occasional fisherman. We arrived at Pan Paung Village by 11:00ish and hiked up the sandy embankment to the village to meet the villagers who were descendants of the Laidu tribe. (There are three tribes of Chin people, but only the Laidu tribe tattooed their women.)

Pulling into Pan Paung village

Pan Paung Village is the richest village in the area as the elderly women used their weaving skills to make exquisite scarfs and table coverings to sell to the tourists. As a result, the village had by far the nicest school buildings I had seen in the area. In addition, the squat toilet (yep another one) even had a tiled floor.

Child in Pan Paung village

We weren’t in the village more than 5 minutes before we ran into the first tattooed elderly women. She was in her 60’s and incredibly friendly, shaking my hand and asking Ko Soe questions about me.

Pan Paung village

We were soon moving on to the home of yet another tattooed elder. We took off our shoes, claimed the bamboo stairs to a lovely rattan deck and sitting area. I was given a plastic chair to sit on, was introduced to the lovely elder who immediately offered us coconuts. Ko Soe split cut off the top, inserted a bamboo straw and handed it to me. Coconut water at its finest.

Tattooed elder

I soon found out that our host was 67 years old and had been weaving for over 50 years. She immediately brought out a loom and began a demonstration for me. She was superb. After watching the demo, she then brought out some of her wares. I was obviously going to buy, it was just a matter of finding what I was looking for and yep … wait for it … she had a scarf in blue and green … the colours for the Seahawks and Canucks! Score! I ended up buying two scarfs, took the requisite pictures, finished the coconut (meat and all) and we were off for a walk around the village.

Weaving and she was awesome
Me and our hostess

We ran into a myriad of pigs wandering the sanding pathways. Chickens were everywhere as were little goats. And there were clusters of children everywhere waving and smiling. We walked down a hill towards the school and watched as four little children were practicing their ABCs in English using a pointing and a sign containing the English alphabet. When they spotted us, the kids broke out into song. It was pretty awesome.

Children practicing their school lessons

We wandered back up the hill and Ko Soe stopped at a small bamboo home on stilts. We took our shoes off and walked up the stairs and there I met the eldest tattooed woman in the village. She was 84 years old. Her vision was not good and hard of hearing, but she was simply lovely. (And oh yea, she was wearing 2 Canadian pins that someone had given her.)

One of the questions I wanted to ask her was at what age she was tattooed. I was informed it was the age of 7. She then went on to describe in graphic detail what it was like to be tattooed.

84 year old tattooed elder

She told me that a paste of water buffalo gall bladder, mustard oil, and soot were applied to her face and then the tattoo man took three pins, bound the pins and began making a series of marks on her face. As she described the process she became more and more animated and then began pointing at her eyelids. I was told that the pain was unbearable for the eyelids. Throughout the process, her family and others held her down so she could not escape. She said her face was swollen for days. It was horrifying to hear. This lovely lady remembered every detail like it was yesterday and how could she not when she was so traumatized at such a young age.

After visiting with the elder, we left her home and walked towards three tattooed lady weavers who had their wares on display on fences. Uh oh. These ladies insisted on selling me a scarf. And I could not just pick one as that would leave the other two ladies out. So … three scarves it is. The money would go to good use and the price for each scarf I purchased was 10,000 kyat, about $7.50 US so why wouldn’t you?

Tattooed elders with my scarbes

After the last scarf purchase we headed back to the boat and across the river to the next village. We sat and had some lunch in the boat (grilled chicken and fried rice) before climbing up yet another sandy embankment to the top. This village was clearly much poorer than the first village.

We stopped at the village store and bought some cookies for the children in the village and set off. We immediately ran into a group of kids who Ko Soe encourage to sing us one of the songs they were learning in school. Three songs and much applause later, we handed out the cookies to the kiddos. The lined up and one by one I handed each of them a packet of cookies and off they went.

Children singing in the second village

As we were taking off our shoes to go into an elder’s home, a little one came by staring at us. Apparently he had heard about the cookies. Fortunately, we had a few more to hand out so with cookies in hand he smiled, waved and ran off to join his friends.

The next lady we met was 80 years of age. She was not a weaver, but had some copper bangles to sell. 5,000 kyat (about $4 USD). I bought a couple and found out she was going to use the money for medicine. Made me want to buy her whole stash. The lady had apparently fallen walking down the sandy embankment the day before to retrieve water and badly bruised her check falling onto her bamboo walking pole. She was clearly in a lot of pain.

Home of the tattooed elder in the second village

As we sat there, she too recounted her story of being tattooed. She was 13 years of age and like the elder in Pan Paung Village, she remembered every detail. Her story and trauma were remarkably similar except for the fact that an ox gall bladder was used instead of a water buffalo. She too pointed to her eyelids, winced and shook her head. I can’t even imagine.

Walking to the third village

After our brief visit, we left and began a 2 km hike to the next village. We walked past gardens and fields and a woman building a bamboo fence. Kids rode past us on bicycles. It was perfect.

As we walked into the final village of the day, we came across a group of young guys playing Chin Lone, a uniquely Burmese game that is a combination of volleyball and soccer. There are three to a side and the object is to get the rattan ball over a net using your feet or head within three touches (just like volleyball). You are not allowed to touch the net and when the ball lands on the ground the team on the opposite side gets a point. The teams play to 15 and then switch sides.

Playing Chin Loan in the third Chin village

Now I had seen the game being played by school children some young guys in Mrauk U village near the Northern Group, but these six guys took the game to a whole new level. They were part acrobat and all athlete. It was amazing to watch and hopefully one of the pictures I took gives you a good idea of how talented these guys were.

Once the set ended, we moved on to the last tattooed lady I would meet. This woman was chewing betal nut and did not appear to be too interested in me other than wanting to sell me a couple rings. I obliged, took a picture and spent more time handing out coloured pencils and pens to the local kids. This was an incredibly poor village with the school house being so small that the classes were taken in shifts.

Walking through the rice paddies to the boat

We said out goodbyes to the little children who were simply delightful and we hiked back down the sandy embankment, through the rice paddies tour and back to the waiting boat. The trip back to Mrauk U was with the current and took far less time than the upstream trip. And it was a good thing because it was threatening to rain again.

Once back in Mrauk U, Ko Soe suggested we stop at Moe Cherry. I had been after Ko Soe to find out where i could buy the little roasted peanuts I had been served at lunch a couple days before. These peanuts were simply the best peanuts i had ever tasted. Unfortunately, my request was lost in translation because a few minutes later, the lovely wait person brought out a little bag of nuts for me to take as a gift. I quickly tried to convey to Ko Soe that I was looking to buy a big bag of the nuts. I soon found out that the peanuts were grown locally, delivered to Moe Cherry in a raw form and then roasted and salted for the customers. However, they were willing to sell me a big bag of the nuts for 10,000 kyat (about $7.50) if i came back later. Deal.

Ko Soe on the boat near the Muslim village

So at 6:00, I grabbed my headlamp and made the 3 km trek from my hotel in the darkness to Moe Cherry. It was a Saturday night and kids and families were out on the street, eating, drinking and doing their Saturday night thing. Off in the distance, I could hear cows mooing and music playing. I reached the restaurant, picked up my peanuts (so happy) and headed back to the hotel. It was time for some of that lovely vermicelli chicken soup and a Myanmar beer. Tomorrow it was back on the boat to Sittwe and my flight to Yangon.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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