By Htay Win
A Thai tourist group was going up the Laymyo River that starts flowing from the Rakhine mountain ranges. There were fourteen people. Most of them had already been to many places inside Burma.
They seemed like close friends.
However, there was a new tourist who had never traveled with them before, her name was Darika. Before she embarked on this trip, international media, including Thai media, had strongly expressed their concerns that northern Arakan State was not safe, so tourists should not go there.
She asked her Burmese friend from Yangon, Ma Thuzar, to join the Mrauk U trip, but she refused to go there because she was afraid.
Darika had long dreamed of visiting Mrauk U. She very much wanted to see the legendary Chin ladies with tattoos on their faces. Now, she was on her way there. The boat which was carrying them was steering on the river peacefully. The local tourist guide’s name was Aung Myint, and he pointed out different places of interest to the group. As usual, the tourists were taking photos of the fascinating views along the riverbanks. They had already visited many historic places of Mrauk U in the last two days.
That day was 9th December 2017. Darika was about to fulfill her desire because she was going to the Chin village. Darika and her group saw farms, plants, trees, and vegetation on both sides of the riverbanks. The small houses and huts they saw on the banks seemed to be fishing villages. There were bamboo and wood which would be sold at the market on some boats. Some bamboo rafts were going down the river. Further down, there were some people taking a bath and washing clothes. Although she tried to take photos of women who were collecting water in the gourd shape pots, she could not take good photos because the objects were too far from the running boat.
When they arrived at the pier of Chin village, they drank coconut water. After that, they all wanted to go to the restroom. However, there was no restroom there. It was a big problem. For the men, although they could go relieve themselves in the bushes, the women were not comfortable like the men. So, the women went to a place where the local tour guide prepared as a toilet. They walked with difficulty on the muddy path beside the riverbank. The so called toilet was enclosed with canvas but had neither roof nor lock.
Although she wanted to take a photo of the toilet because it was the first time in her life seeing something like that, she could not. Her hands were not free because she had to hold her trousers with one hand and carry her bag with the other hand. And also, there was a strong wind. After they had lunch brought from Mrauk U at the jetty of Chin village, they went to the village. She was enthusiastic to see the tattoos on the faces of old Chin ladies and to buy clothes they wove. She wished to buy colorful handkerchiefs, Burmese longyis and shoulder bags which she had seen in the tourist guidebook.
The tattoo on the old Chin ladies’ face was called Par Ray by local people. Although Tattoo cultures are very popular in the world, they don’t have the covered tattoo designs on the whole face like these women. This is real unusual subject matter. She had heard in some legends that if the king in the ancient era met a beautiful Chin lady, he would capture her and take her as his wife. Therefore, the Chin ladies began to tattoo their faces to avoid that danger. This tradition of tattooing the face passed on from generation to generation. But present days Chin ladies do not tattoo their faces. Only old women have tattoos. It is sure that this traditional custom will die out soon.
She passed a stream that flowed continuously between the village and the jetty. The water in the stream was cool and clear. Because the village is located on the hill at the bottom of the Rakhine mountain ranges, the path is quite steep, so they climbed up and began to sweat. When they arrived at the village, they were welcomed by an old Chin woman who offered them bananas and water. Then she invited them to take a rest in her house. They thought she was very kind. They praised her in their mind. While they were having bananas, she brought shoulder bags, longyis, and handkerchiefs and showed the items to them. She asked them to buy her goods.
Although Darika had intended to buy some souvenirs, she did not want to buy from her because her goods were so expensive. Since no one bought anything from her, the old woman seemed disappointed. After they left that house, they entered the village and looked around. They wanted to see other houses where they could buy some souvenirs. While walking, they saw a small house with bamboo mats for walls. They could see ten children in the house, but there were no signs of their parents. Their clothes were very stained and unclean. They were living in extreme poverty.
When Darika gave them some snacks and balloons, they were so delighted. Other tourists also gave them some presents. She felt sad that they did not know how to peel the candies and how to open the pack of snacks. So, she opened the packets for them. After they ate the snacks and candies, they threw the plastic wrappers on the ground. There were no bins. At that time, she thought these tourists were destroying the virgin region with some plastic gifts packages that they had brought from the city.
When she gave the children some pencils, Aung Myint, the local tourist guide told her not to give them those pencils because they did not know how to read and write. She felt very sorry for them. She did not see a clinic, administrative office, school, temple, or shop. However, she saw a signboard that was hung at a house, and on it was written National League for Democracy which the Political party influenced in majority of voters all over the country.
The houses were built with tall poles and people lived on the upper floor and pigs lived on the ground floor. All the houses that she saw were of the same design. Most of them were bamboo houses and were roofed with thatch. She felt strange because there was no lock at each house. Similarly, there was no toilet. When she asked them how they went to the toilet, she was informed that they went to the bushes to relieve themselves in the daytime. When they were not in good health or it was nighttime, they used the upper floor of their house as toilets. Then the feces were eaten by pigs which lived on the ground floor.
The tour group met another old Chin woman while they were walking in the village. Although Darika had planned to observe their tattooed faces carefully, when she really met them, she changed her mind. She did not even want to take photos with them as she felt she was disturbing their simply lifestyle. They welcomed tourists and allowed themselves to be photoed with visitors to get money from foreigners. At that time, she kept telling herself, “This is not a zoo.” Therefore, she took a photo only with a Chin woman with tattoos on her face. It was for evidence that she had been there. Aung Myint told his group not to give money to the villagers, but some tourists still gave a little money to them.
Some young Chin girls came to see the tourists. Darika noticed that two or three of them were pregnant. She was really surprised because they seemed to be about 14 or 15 years old. She thought that they were shy. Some of them were carrying babies in their arms. She gave some candies to them. It was a very thoughtless decision to bring razors that she believed they would like them. She saw few men there. Most of them were women and children. It seemed to her that the men were working in the jungle. When she gave a razor to a woman, she told her to keep it carefully and give it to her husband. However, the woman gave it to her child immediately. The baby thought it could be eaten and put it to his mouth immediately. She at once told her not to give it to the children because it was very dangerous. She blamed herself and admitted that it was her fault; she should not have brought the razors.
When her group arrived at a small house, an old woman pulled her hand tightly while talking to her in Chin language. She understood from her gestures that the woman wanted some medicine. So, when she asked Aung Myint, he explained that the woman asked if she had some medicine, for example, painkiller, inhaler, etc., and if she did, please give it to her.
Darika was sad that she did not bring something which they really needed here, and she did not try to get information before coming here. She should have brought things that were useful for them. When she replied that she did not have the medicine, that woman looked very disappointed. She would not forget her sorrowful face.
While her group were returning to the jetty, she noticed the plastic bags, packs of candies and rubbish scattered along the path. They will be left here for hundreds of years. “Why didn’t I think about it? Did I destroy the virgin land? The villagers were not to blame for this. It was my fault for not finding information about them before coming.” She put the blame on herself.
However, she had finally been to the Chin village which she had wanted to visit very much. She would certainly not forget her companions who were with her on this memorable trip.