We first contemplated visiting Myanmar back in August 2011 after finishing the bar exam. At the time, very few tourists were visiting the country and it was very “off the beaten path.” Ultimately we decided that visiting during Myanmar’s rainy season did not sound like fun and opted to travel elsewhere (Ladakh/Kashmir/India). Now, more than five years later, we had finally made it to Myanmar only to find that the main sites are part of a clear tourist circuit. A beautiful and enchanting tourist circuit, but not exactly undiscovered.
Heading off to Chin State, in the northwestern corner of the country was our ticket off the tourist circuit. The government only recently opened up the region to foreigners traveling without a guide or special permit. The Lonely Planet guidebook only mentions Mindat in passing as part of its discussion of nearby Mt. Victoria, which it concludes still requires a guide to visit for all intents and purposes. I know it may come as a surprise to many, but we did not jump at the opportunity to do a multi-day trek to climb Mt. Victoria — something about paying prohibitive fees (~$1200 per person) for a guided hike up a mountain that people can drive up did not sound fun. But the small village of Mindat, tucked away in the mountainous hills and known for the (now illegal) practice of tatooing women’s faces, sounded intriguing.
Now, if only we could figure out how to get to Mindat. I have a confession to make… day-to-day trip planning can be exhausting — What town/country should we visit next? How do we get there? What should we do while we’re there? Where should we stay? What/where should we eat? — you get the idea (and yes, I know, first world problems). Trying to figure out how to get to Chin state and where to go once we got there was even worse. Myanmar is changing so quickly that information that is only two years old is already out of date (don’t even think about relying on something from 2012). Just looking at a map doesn’t really tell you how long it will take to get somewhere because the roads can be incredibly slow or connections poor. Moreover, bus schedules are not online, so we’re pretty much at the mercy of traveler blogs and information that we learn from people that we come across.
Which is basically my excuse for why we listened to the guy in Bagan who told us that it would be just as easy, no easier, to get to Mindat from Mandalay as it was to get to Mindat from Bagan. I chalked up his explanation to better, faster road connections. I think that we also wanted to believe him because he said that the minibuses to Mindat were sold out for the next two days (or weren’t running?) due to the full moon festivities, so it seemed more convenient to hop on the boat to Mandalay instead of spending more time in Bagan waiting for the bus. Not our best decision.
All of that is just to say that it took us awhile to get to Mindat from Hsi-Paw (northeast of Pyin Oo Lwin on the map above). We split it up into two days — first about 7 hours on a minibus from Hsi-Paw back to Mandalay, where we spent the night before hopping on a 9-hour minibus direct to Mindat (more on logistics below). And just because that wasn’t fun enough, I decided to get food poisoning the night we were in Mandalay (origins unclear). Joy.
Our last hour or so of driving was up a narrow road that wound its way up into the mountains. We’d have to wait to see what the hills around Mindat looked like until the next day though, since we arrived after dark. Since it was Thanksgiving Day, we were eager to head out to see what we could find for our Thanksgiving dinner. There weren’t many options. Most storefronts were dark. When we found a place that was open, the options were limited (probably only partially due to our limited ability to communicate). “Chicken?” the young woman asked. Yes, that’ll do. As we would later become accustomed, the little dish of chicken that was brought out was cold and accompanied by many other mystery dishes and soup. I ate what I could given that I still wasn’t feeling very well. Not out tastiest Thanksgiving dinner, but the cheapest. The bill came to 2,000 kyat ($1.60).
In the light of the following morning, we could finally make out the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. The town was nestled along a ridge line and surrounded by green mountains.
We spent the next two days walking through the neighboring villages. The first day we didn’t manage to get very far because I was still feeling unwell and weak (I couldn’t stomach eating any of the available food), but the second day we made it several kilometers out of town. Other than walking around there isn’t much to do per se. Our guesthouse had a poster up for a travel agency, but when we asked about guides we received only confused looks in return. Walking on our own it was!
We waved and smiled at locals as we passed by along the road. Most people seemed genuinely interested in our presence. Children ran up and down along the street yelling “bye! bye!” as we passed. Young women would say hello and then giggle amongst themselves in embarrassment. A couple gentlemen approached us and basically put out their hand for a shake, said hello, and then said goodbye. Sometimes they would ask “where you go?,” but what they really wanted to know was what country we were from.
Unlike most of Myanmar, Chin state has a large population of Christians, specifically Baptists. We ran into two different Baptist ministers and chatted for awhile with both. Their English was great, probably from attending bible schools with English instruction, and they were both really friendly.
And then, of course, were the many women that we passed with tattoos across their faces. There appears to be some question as to the origin of the practice. Most accounts explain that the local kings used to travel throughout the countryside and select the most beautiful women for their harems. In order to make their girls ugly to avoid selection, they would tattoo their faces, with each tribe adopting a different tattoo design. Because the practice was outlawed decades ago by the government, I was surprised to see how many women had tattooed faces as we walked around Mindat.
To be honest, as much as I was interested in seeing these women, I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of stopping each of them on the street to ask to take a picture of them. For me, that feels inherently different from taking a picture because someone is doing or selling something interesting or has a really beautiful outfit on or is a cute kid. Maybe I’m overthinking it or attributing my own cultural bias. I understand that there are areas around Mrauk U where tattooed women have chosen to make a living by charging for photographs, but that isn’t really the case in Mindat. If it had been, maybe I would have viewed the situation differently. I’ve read accounts of people visiting the region in which it sounds like they basically stopped each women on the street and asked to take a picture, but that wasn’t how I wanted to interact with people during our time in Mindat. So, long story short, we saw a bunch of beautiful, older women with tattooed faces, but we don’t have a ton of photos. If you’re interested in seeing more pictures, there are some wonderful portraits online.
Walking around Mindat, we really got the sense that we were away from manicured tourist circuit and actually seeing how people lived. We ran into a group of three French tourists (on our minibus both to and from Mindat) and a couple people just stopping by for the night with a guide. Otherwise, we really didn’t see other tourists. The area is very impoverished, and the difference between wealth levels here and elsewhere we’d visited was visible yet difficult to articulate. The grass huts may have looked similar to those around Hsi-paw, but the nights in Mindat are very cold due to the higher altitude and I can’t imagine that these houses retain much heat. The electricity was limited and unreliable. I got the impression that hot water was only recently made available at our very basic guesthouse and it was piped into the bathroom through a different hose.
Food options were very basic and primarily consisted of simple chicken and rice dishes (like we had for Thanksgiving), fried noodles, and fried breads. Everything was super oily and there wasn’t much available in terms of fresh fruit and veggies. While there were many little shops, their wares were more limited to the daily necessities: basic foods, warm blankets, and pajama sets (because those appear to be very fashionable here). No ice cream or fruit shakes for us. Food was not a high point of our stay. Maybe one of the clearest indications of how impoverished the area is and how few tourists it sees.
Despite the challenges of getting to Mindat, I’m glad that we made the effort and visited. What the town lacks in tourist infrastructure and comforts, it makes up in its opportunities for genuine interactions with locals. Traveling independently afforded us the time to wander around and explore on our own, although I think it would have been nice to spend some time with a local guide to provide more context and to bridge the language barrier (people here speak Chin, not Burmese). And of course, seeing the many women with tattooed faces was a treat and highlighted the many differences between Chin state and the rest of the country. We’ve heard that the rest of Chin state can also be intriguing to visit, but we lacked the time and patience for the additional days of travel and opted to spend the rest of our remaining visa time in southern Myanmar instead.
Logistics for getting from Mandalay/Hsi-Paw to Mindat:
(This section is probably of no interest to those not planning their own trip to Mindat. I wanted to share because figuring out how to get from Mandalay to Mindat ended up being a very difficult task and I found nothing particularly helpful on the internet.)
When we first passed through Mandalay, we were told that there were no direct buses to Mindat and that we’d have to take a minibus to Pokoku and then catch an early morning minibus to Mindat (requiring an overnight stay in Pokoku). It didn’t help that no one could tell us when buses toward Pokoku left. Luckily, the wonderful staff at Lily the Home in Hsi-Paw spent a lot of time helping us figure out not only one, but two ways to get to Mindat.
The first option was to take an overnight bus from Hsi-Paw to Pokoku. This bus would arrive in time to catch the onward morning minibus to Mindat. Perfect, sign us up! Only problem was that the overnight bus to Pokoku wasn’t running during our stay because of militia fighting up the road.
The second option was to take a minibus back to Mandalay (~7 hours). From Mandalay, they found a direct minibus to Mindat that left at 9:30am and arrive at about 6:30pm (info in pictures below). The only downside of this plan was that it required us to overnight in Mandalay — but it was certainly better than having to transfer in Pokoku!
If you arrive in town without guesthouse reservations, the bus will stop at MoPo on the way into town (it’s on the outskirts). I understand that it is pretty basic and with no hot water, but that the person who runs it may speak some English. We had called and booked ahead at Tun’s Guesthouse (070-70166 , 09-47170090). We paid 30,000 kyat per night (~$22) for a very basic room with hot water. We had heard that the guesthouse would arrange guides and treks, but our attempts at asking for information about those services were unsuccessful. There is no internet in town.
Of course, this is all likely to change within the next couple years 😉
[This blog post describes our visit to Mindat, Myanmar from November 24 to 27, 2016.]