Mindat is a small town in the Chin province of Myanmar (also known as Burma) in Southeast Asia. It’s west of Mandalay and nestled on the side of a mountain at an altitude of 1500 meters. Mindat is becoming popular with travelers due to it’s women, who sport full face tattoos, a tribal tradition that has put Mindat firmly on the map when it comes to must visit tourist destinations in Myanmar.
This tiny town was only recently opened to tourists in the last few years by the Myanmar government. If you’re considering a visit then be aware that Mindat is really hard to get to. Almost 200 km from Bagan, an ancient city in central Myanmar, it can take between 6 to 12 hours to reach on the road via Pakkhoku.
The Long Road To Mindat Myanmar
Adventurous travelers wishing to get off the beaten path and visit this tiny mountain town should prepare for a long bus ride on bumpy dirt roads which are far easier to navigate during Myanmar’s dry season from October to April.
Visiting Chin state in Myanmar is worth the journey for the atmospheric scenery and hiking around Mount Victoria but the main reason most travelers visit the area is to meet and photograph Mindat’s famous tribal women and see their traditional full face tattoos that are worn with pride and honor, in person.
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The Famous Tribal Women Of Mindat
Renowned for their beauty, the women of Mindat and it’s surrounding villages (reached through pretty heavy-going trekking) are best known for the women’s elaborate facial tattoos. Full facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago, re-defining traditional beauty ideals in the region. It is however a vanishing trend these days as many younger Chin women choose to opt out of this old tribal tradition.
The origin of the tradition is obscure, and when asked most tattooed women simply say that they were encouraged to get the tattoos by their families and visited the tattoo artist as young women of 14 or 15 with their friends.
Fun Fact: Mindat tattoo artists are always women as this is considered a feminine tradition.
Folklore in Mindat suggests that the Mindat tribal women’s tattoos were used to make the women appear ugly therefore discouraging various outsiders, from Burmese Kings to British Colonialists, from stealing their women. However other tales claim that the face tattoo tradition was used to make the Mindat women more beautiful and desirable to enable them to find a rich husband. Other folklore tales suggest that it was used as a method to distinguish the Mindat clan’s women from other tribe’s women in case they were kidnapped by another clan.
Then there are the stories that claim that the full facial tattoos were an ancient religious tradition as the pain of making the tattoos prepared the women’s safe entry into heaven – most Chin’s have practiced a blend of Christianity and Animism since the British annexed the state in the late 19th century. Unfortunately there’s no written history to throw light on which of the above was the real purpose behind this unusual tradition.
Perhaps the Mindat women would get their faces tattooed simply because it was the normal and expected thing to do within their community and many people don’t feel the need to question what is considered ‘normal’.Folklore: The Mindat tribal women's face tattoos were used to make them appear ugly to discourage Burmese Kings from stealing their women. #culture #travel #wanderlust #myanmar Click To Tweet
Mindat Face Tattoos – A Painful Process
The face tattoos are made using thorn needles and ink made from a mixture of cow bile, pig fat, soot and plants. The soot in the ink acts as a disinfectant, and grass shoots are added at the end as a kind of natural bandage. The process is said to be very painful. Hun Young, a 34-year-old woman from the Muun tribe, said that she had to endure three 4 hour tattoo sessions to complete her facial tattoos. The Mindat women all seem to agree that tattooing their eyelids was by far the most painful part of the process.
The style of the tattoos vary depending on the woman’s clan. Most of the women living in the area come from the Muun, Dai or Kaang clans, but it is estimated that there are around 60 different clans in the area. Muun women (shown above) describe the symbolism of their tattoos, saying that the semi-circles of their cheeks represent the moon, the lines on the nose and chin the rays of the sun, and the dots the stars.
The Upprui tribe’s women (shown above) have their entire face covered with black dots leaving them with a blackened or ashen-looking face as they are so full of tattoos. The Magan tribeswomen wear huge earrings made of beads and calabashes and they can play the flute with their noses.
A Dying Tribal Tradition
The Mindat tradition of women’s facial tattoos is becoming increasingly rare since the practice was outlawed by the then Burmese government in the 1960’s who imposed policies of ‘Burmanization’ that attempted to assimilate the country’s ethnic minorities. Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with 135 distinct ethnic groups.
Though many women who grew up during the time of prohibition still sport the tattoos, it has become less common. Prohibition laws were relaxed following the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, but it is unclear how many young women will decide to get the tattoos in future as local attitudes are changing. Forty-year-old Cal Gei Awi decided to have her face tattooed at the age of 14 and says she is proud to wear the tattoos and of the culture of her people. However her sister says that she hates the tradition and is completely tattoo free.
Tourists and Travelers Visiting Mindat
Many of the local Mindat women, although perplexed by the interest in their tattoos, welcome the increased tourism to the area. There is a hope that the money that tourism brings in will support local schools, where there are plans to teach the local Chin language alongside Burmese.
Others are suspicious that foreigners are taking photographs to mock them, since during the campaign to suppress local ethnic cultures like these, the Burmese government criticized the practice and called it barbaric.
Mindat Travel Tips
If you’re visiting the area to photograph these beautiful and fascinating women, remember your manners. Local woman Lee Tin recounted how she was once photographed returning from the field, dirty and unprepared, which left her feeling ‘ashamed’. Everyone likes to look good when photographed, and many locals prefer to be photographed wearing their national costume. Snapping someone without their permission is the height of rudeness, even in remote Mindat.
I spoke with Quentin and Mariette, aka Mr & Mrs Shoes, the travel blogging photographers behind the website ShoesYourPath about their visit to Mindat. They took some stunning photographs of the Mindat people that you can see in their own blog post about Mindat and it’s evident that their subjects were perfectly relaxed and happy at the time of being photographed.
I asked Quentin and Mariette if they encountered any awkward moments or hostility from the locals while in Mindat;
“We usually take some time to meet and exchange with people, wherever we are around the world, before we ask to take a picture of them. In Mindat there weren’t that many tourists when we were there, so getting in touch with people in the streets was quite easy. Generally it became more difficult when tourism grew. But we met a few people who refused to talk with us or who simply refused to be photographed. You have to understand the background of the culture for that. Those ladies where tattooed on their faces to make them ugly, so some of them think they are still ugly. Some others have seen photographers previously and don’t like it. When doing ethnographic portrait there is always something difficult, it mustn’t be “zoo like”, so it’s perfectly understandable that some of those ladies feel like being just a matter of interest for their tattoo, and you have to respect their refusal if it happens.”
Quentin and Mariette’s advice for travelers interested in visiting Mindat is this;
“You must be a little bit prepared to go up there, the road is tough, and it’s a mountainous area, so weather can be quite different and much colder than down in Bagan or Mandalay… take some time to wander around, understand the cultural and historical background, to talk with people, eat with them, share a tea, play with the kids, whatever that can make them feel easy with you. Meeting people is the very soul of traveling, and they will make your experience unique, and maybe guide you around, or show you amazing things that you couldn’t have found or seen if they didn’t tell you.”
Also note, if you’re planning to travel to Mindat, that there is no place to get local currency (no ATMS) and internet access is extremely limited. Don’t expect to be able to check your emails while here because you are seriously off-the-grid. So make sure you plan in advance and bring everything you will need with you.
When it comes to accommodation in Mindat and the surrounding villages, don’t expect luxury because you may end up sleeping on the floor and having to wash with a bucket of cold water. On the bright side, the views are amazing and the people are truly unforgettable!
Where To Stay In Mindat
The Mountain Oasis Resort is the most well known ‘eco hotel’ in the area and a great place to embrace the simplicity of rural Burmese life. Simply furnished but with breathtaking views of pristine forests and mountains, the Mountain Oasis Resort is also the only place to stay where you can get hot water for a shower (if you request it 45 minutes in advance that is). There’s a small restaurant here that serves up local dishes as well as European and Chinese food. So at least you won’t starve.
Another option for accommodation in Mindat is the Mo Pi Guesthouse which can be found at the entrance of the village (No 25 Main Road, East Qr, Mindat Myo to be precise). For $20 a night you’ll get a shared toilet, no hot water and a breakfast of fried bread, cakes and coffee.
There are a number of other guesthouses, some from as little as $10 a night but most are very rustic and without showers. Booking a room can be difficult as most of these smaller guesthouses in Mindat don’t offer online reservation services. If you want to get a room at one of the best two places to stay in Mindat, the Mountain Oasis Resort or Mo Pi Guesthouse (mentioned above) then I highly recommend trying to book in advance.
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Mindat Guesthouse Booking Tip
Very little English is spoken in the area, even in the guest houses, so you may need a friend who speaks Burmese to ring up and book for you. Arriving without a booking can be risky, especially during holiday periods, remember Mindat is a tiny place and the number of rooms are limited. The Tun Guesthouse, Victoria Guesthouse and the Se Nang Family Guesthouse are generally reliable places to stay too.
Accommodation Outside Of Mindat (that you can book online)
Another option if you’re visiting is to stay a few miles outside of Mindat, this way you can choose between some much better guesthouses, for example the 3 star The Floral Breeze Hotel (Mt.Victoria) which is nearby in Kanpetlet. Rooms here have an electric tea pot (I’m sold), a private bathroom, a desk and some rooms come with stunning mountain views.
Chin State Trekking Guide
Since 2013 tourists have not required a special permit to visit Mindat or needed to be accompanied by a licensed guide, however it’s still a really good idea to commission a local guide if you want to make the most of your visit, especially if you don’t speak Burmese.
There’s really only one person you need to contact if you want to go trekking in Chin State. This Chin trekking expert knows all of the villages and best trekking tracks. He also knows pretty much everyone in Chin state and they all know him! He can speak Chin, Burmese and near perfect English and even created his own incredible trek from Mindat to Mrauk U. He can be your trekking guide (should you have enough moolah) alternatively he can recommend the best guide for you based on your individual requirements.
His name is Naing Kee Shein and he owns a Chin Trekking Tour Company called Mt Victoria Trekker. So if you want to do some trekking, don’t waste your time going without a guide. You won’t be able to communicate with the locals who do not speak English and it will therefore not be a particularly rich experience. Instead go to the Mt Victoria Trekker facebook page and get in touch with the ultimate Chin Trekking expert, Naing Kee Shein.
*Update on Naing Kee Shein: This trekking guide has fallen off his pedestal recently and I have been warned that a number of trusted sources (for example photographers visiting Mindat who have used his service) have had bad experiences involving this guide’s conduct. So do your own research and perhaps ask around for personal recommendations when you’re in town.
Have you visited Mindat yourself or would you consider going in future? Share your own experiences or thoughts about the Mindat women’s face tattoos in the comments section below.
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