Header image courtesy of Nanda Haensel
On a day in late January, I land in the former capital of Myanmar, but only in transit. I leave Yangon for an expedition across the Arakan mountains in western Burma.
Despite being relatively new to tourism compared to other Southeast Asian countries, in Myanmar, the heat is on. The standard itineraries to Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake don’t excite me as much as going off-piste. Curiosity for the undiscovered and a keen nose for adventure leads me to a forgotten part of this (still) exotic country. Hence begins my journey into the mountainous region of Chin.
Wild, mountainous, and remote, Chin State is Myanmar’s least developed region—with 75 percent of its population living below the poverty line. The Chins are a double minority: they are neither Buddhist or Burmese. Instead, they have chosen to adopt Christianity.
As one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in Myanmar, many have fled to neighbouring India, Malaysia, and Thailand. The state has only recently opened up for tourism and is currently only accessible via car. Infrastructure projects are underway—Surbung Airport in the Falam township is set to open in May 2020.
“We are having some trouble with the immigration officer,” says our Burmese guide, Khai, on day two, after journeying by air from Yangon and 13 hours by car from Bagan. We are in Matupi, one of the townships of Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh, where foreign visitors were not allowed during the years of the closed military regime.
Since 2015, it’s possible to apply for a special permit from the central government that grants access to the area. However, even permits to the region like ours, which were approved weeks ago, can be revoked without explanation.
Travelling in Burma is as all about the unexpected, in terms of events as well as sights. “Our itinerary includes a no-go zone,” clarifies Khai. “The Chin State is an unstable region. There is still ongoing tension between Chin sub-tribes and the central government. Travel permits get cancelled all the time.”
Thankfully, Khai’s connections got us our permits back in just a few hours. Max, my better half, and I are accompanied by a five-member crew, who will be with us for the next three days—transporting our supplies and driving us across the most remote parts of the Chin State.
This is far from a typical trip to Myanmar. The first part of the expedition is conducted entirely on motorbikes. Having no roads makes things tougher—a few sections of the track are so steep that we have to get off and walk—but this is part of the experience.
As we journey south towards the Rakhine State, we experience a diversity of landscapes. Starting with panoramic views of the Chin Hills, we proceed to find ourselves surrounded by bamboo forests. Most of the region still lives in a pre-electrical age. Among the 39 Chin villages, it is possible to access two by car and ten by motorbike. The remaining 27 are only reachable by hiking.
Nearly 15 different villages later, we encounter a few older Chin women bearing traditional facial tattoos. “I got my tattoo when I was about 12,” says one of the ladies, according to the chief of the village and her son, who translates our conversation. “It was so painful, my face hurt for five days. I didn’t think about why I did it; it was just our custom and what all girls my age did then.”
Some say that Chin families tattooed their daughters’ faces to discourage kidnapping by neighbouring kings. Others claim it was to distinguish between tribes. Whatever the case, this unique practice is now a rare sight. The Burmese Socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing in 1972 as part of their modernisation programme. These old women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they pass away, a chapter of Chin history will be confined to books and stories.
We’re invited to share their homes, where I can see up close how the local families live. The Chin people are incredibly warm and friendly. We sleep on bamboo mats and wash in public outdoor showers. The houses have bamboo walls and wooden stoops. I watch kids playing soccer. We are clearly objects of attention—this is the first time many of them come across outsiders. There is a soporific beauty to these villages, but it’s also hard to get used to the primitiveness of the place.
I feel exposed, raw, and immersed as I lay on the floor. As I struggle to fall asleep, I think of how I could have opted for a different type of trip. I find myself wishing for a proper bed. I force myself to remember the “grease of luxury travel”—how ease of access is directly proportional to a journey’s lack of intensity—and recommit to the principle of my journey: Chin’s appeal is derived from being very different to what one is used to.
Here, in this forgotten corner of Myanmar, luxury is defined differently. It’s about having an intimate connection with the landscape and the people. It’s about leaving the comforts of home, opening our minds to new perspectives and letting the magic take hold. Everything else becomes irrelevant.
We drive downhill until we arrive at Lay Myo River. From here, we leave our motorbikes behind and board a canoe that takes us all the way from Chin to the Rakhine State. We spend two days moving slowly, feeling deeply and absorbing it all from the canoe. We watch the river getting wider and calmer until it completely broadens out. The scenery is spectacular. I’m overwhelmed. We arrive at the jetty near Mrauk U, where we see first signs of development.
A shift in perspective is something that all true exploration provides, the ultimate prize for embarking on a bold journey. Travelling in this part of Myanmar isn’t about going through items on a checklist, nor is it about plush lodges. To me, meaningful trips, like this one, are about engaging intimately and humbly with the land and the people.