Off the Beaten Track in Myanmar (Burma): The Last Tattooed Women

excursion tattooed women burma myanmar

It is amazing just how easy it is to visit villages off the beaten track in Myanmar (Burma) – we’re not talking about a circus show of locals who have quickly changed out of their standard western clothes into some tribal costume, dancing moves they have learnt purely to earn a few dollars from passing tourists. No, no – in Myanmar you can travel as little as half an hour from a busy hub and find yourself in a small, hospitable village with bamboo houses, greeted by locals in genuine traditional dress who are genuinely interested to engage with you. If you know where to go that is.

During my seven-week research trip of this beautiful country I have visited almost as many villages as I’ve eaten chicken curries… and that’s a lot! As Myanmar is such an eclectic mix of different ethnic groups spread across different states; no two villages are quite the same. The ladies in the Kachin state will wear wildly differently designed longyis to those in the Mon State or Shan State, while others in the Karin State down south wear light, white robes with pink and red strings hanging from them. Learning about the different ethnic groups in this incredibly complicated country has been one of the most fascinating elements of my journey.

One of my most memorable village experiences was when I met a group of tribal ladies with tattooed faces, which are something of a dying breed in Myanmar. These women, who are now mostly in their 70s and 80s, had their entire faces tattooed as young girls – when they were as young as seven years old.

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It is hard concept for us to grasp, coming from a culture where most parents won’t even let their children pierce their ears until they are teenagers. But here in the Chin State (deepest darkest Myanmar) where the tribal tradition has taken place for many centuries, folklore says that women began inking their faces to make them unattractive to prevent the Burmese king from kidnapping them. Another legend says the tattoos (which are different for each tribe) identified the tribe members and would therefore prevent their ladies being kidnapped by other tribes. Whatever the origins, it soon became an asset to have a tattooed face and deemed to be an attractive feature.

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The practise was made illegal by the government in 1960 and although it was said to have continued for up to 40 years after that all the women I met in a Chin village in the Rakhine State were very old.

“In ten years time there will be no women with tattooed faces here,” said our guide as we were circled by a group of curious young children whose un-inked faces, along with their parents, looked fresh and youthful compared to the older women of the tribe, whose tattoos resembled spiders webs across their faces. The lines of the inked webs on their faces seemed to accentuate their weather and aged skin, adding shade and depth to their natural lines and wrinkles.

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“There were eight women with tattooed faces here until recently,” said the guide. “But one died. Another one is very ill, I have brought her some medicine,” he added.

The women, who do not speak English, nodded as if understanding what he said and accepting their imminent fate with peace. Perhaps it is thanks to the devout Buddhist beliefs here, but generally I have found the people of Myanmar to be more accepting of death and its inevitability than we are in the west.

But in the meantime they are happy that their faces have brought them a little bit of attention and some extra revenue from tourists. Grasping the poverty in Myanmar is difficult… The average rural teacher is on just $100 a day and the average doctor in a rural area on only $200. Every day more and more fit and capable youngsters are leaving the country to work over the border in Thai factories for $10 a day, leaving the farms to be manned by the elderly and uneducated children who are kept out of school to harvest the rice.

Visiting villages like those of the tattooed ladies, gives a true and fascinating insight into rural life and poverty in Myanmar. Most do not have access to doctors or medicine and live in basic bamboo huts, relying on the harvest and ample supply of river fish to survive. It is a level of basic living that most in the UK have never paused to consider. 

As we spoke to the the ladies, through our guide who worked as a translator, they were happy to tell their stories and spend time with us. They laughed and joked among each other and didn’t ask for a single penny from us… No matter how many photos we took. Visiting villages of Myanmar is a refreshing experience, we have never once been asked for money or even made to feel like we were intruding. Old ladies would natter away to our guide or family members as they cooked for us, while young children played around their feet. And as we sat down to eat their delicious spread of local specialities – just as we did in the village of tattooed ladies – the elderly chef would just squat in the corner (as they do with such agility here regardless of their age – is arthritis just a western conflict I wonder?!) and watch happily as we smacked our lips and rubbed our bellies to show our appreciation of the feast she had prepared for us.

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untitled-222When I asked if they minded us visiting the guide shook his head. “No,” he said. “They like it, sometimes the tourists buy some of their handicrafts from their houses and that is new money for them.” 

What’s more if you are booking through a sustainable tour company (like us!) they are also supporting the villages, and giving small donations with each visit. Of course this is still very off the beaten track. To get to the remote village I visited you must first fly to Mrauk-U and then take a (very beautiful and scenic) private three hour river boat ride. Only 14,000 people visit Mrauk-U a year – let alone this tiny village, which sees a handful of visitors. There are other neighbouring villages with tattooed ladies nearby so our guide explained the little tourism that does comes here is pretty well spread out.

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I couldn’t help but jump in the picture with this lovely lady

Of course Myanmar won’t be like this forever. You only have to look next door to Thailand or even Vietnam to see just how much can change in a relatively short period of time. As Myanmar continues to open up and democratise (which is an excellent thing for the people here) globalisation and affluence will grow hand in hand, naturally taking its toll on their traditional ways. Perhaps one day in the future, when the tattooed ladies are documented to history books, we will see their grand-children wearing jeans and western shorts crying, ‘lovely jubbly’ and ‘fish and chips’ to passing tourists in hope of a buck or two – but for now, this is the perfect time to observe a completely unadulterated rural way of life that feels a million miles away from the rest of the world.

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PS We organise off the beaten track village experiences throughout Myanmar (Burma) at Fleewinter travel agency. We have tried and tested them all and have everything on offer from eating lunch at a traditional Intha home at Inle Lake, to meeting the tattooed ladies near Mrauk-U and spending a morning with the charming Karin tribes in an untouched village near Hpa-An (a personal favourite of mine). In our books you haven’t really been to Myanmar unless you’ve ‘dined’ in a traditional village home and been cooked for by a lady who has been preparing traditional food for more than half a century after inheriting the recipes by her grandmother. We promote sustainable travel in Myanmar and are delighted to be supporting these small communities in an ethical and positive way. 

Ooh, and in case you’re wondering where the luxury comes in… we are working with the stunning Princess Resort in Mrauk U, which makes the ideal base for which to explore this lesser-visited part of the country.

For more details about booking a holiday in Myanmar please contact me via my contact page (in the ‘about’ menu).

1 Comment on Off the Beaten Track in Myanmar (Burma): The Last Tattooed Women

  1. Anke Glover
    February 10, 2016 at 6:55 pm (1 year ago)

    Really interesting and well written facts about Myanmar which I would love to visit in the near future.

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