The dark lines of ink covering her tattooed face couldn’t dissuade eye contact, and for a moment, we both caught each other staring. The woman’s stretched earlobes dangled under the weight of her circular earrings. I almost couldn’t look away. She held a mango in one hand and pointed directly at me with the other, signalling for me to kick the mud off my sandals before climbing up the steps into her home.
The tattoo is part of a local custom with origins shrouded in centuries-old lore, the practice of applying tattoos over the faces of native women apparently began as a tactic to disfigure women’s natural beauty; a dubious deterrent to prevent kidnapping into concubine life from rival clans and Burmese kings. The ornate tattoo designs, painfully applied with a pine needle over the course of several days, also served as a way women identified with their tribe.
Over time, the tattoos were embraced as a woman’s rite-of-passage, and ultimately, as a symbol of beauty. The controversial tradition has long since been outlawed, and only a few of these women remain alive today – one of whom was willing to share her world with me.
Firmly entrenched in her golden years, Hla is one of the last tattooed women of the ethnic Chin villages in Myanmar’s remote Rakhine State. Dressed in a royal blue sarong with her hair tied into a bun behind her head, Hla’s tattoos appeared to be a web of sun rays at first glance. They extended outward from the centre of her forehead almost like an Archimedean spiral, accentuating her high cheekbones and jawline. She was quick to flash a spirited grin as she moved beyond the bamboo frames of her doorway. I caught an inquisitive sparkle in her eye, as if she had a question on the tip of her tongue, but might be unsure how to ask.
Her footsteps shook the bamboo floor of her home with vibrations of merriment as she greeted me with a plate of freshly sliced mangoes, picked moments earlier from right outside her home. I bowed my head in gratitude and she responded with a tsunami of a smile that seemed to swell with each bite of mango. Radiating a seemingly divine sense of cheerfulness, Hla was nearly adorned with a glowing halo above her head.
She pointed to my camera and gave me a nod, but I couldn’t take her photo, not like that. I looked back at my guide, Myant, and while he assured me that pictures were okay, I’ve never felt more uncomfortable snapping a photograph in my life. There was more than met the eye with this lovely woman who was standing in front of me, and I wanted to see beyond the intimidating guise of her tribal tattoos.
I stuffed the camera deep into my pocket and pointed to the colourful cloth draped over a wooden loom situated in the far corner of the room; her eyes lit up as she decoded my gestures, and her enthusiasm overflowed as she shared her life with a curious traveller from halfway around the world.
With Myant acting as our translator, our joyful hostess showed me how to weave cloth on her wooden loom, a process she had learned as a young girl. She sold the fabrics and handmade trinkets to both locals and travellers alike. After a moment, she picked out three of her most beautiful shawls specifically for my mother and sisters back home.
The number of words my new acquaintance understood in English could have been counted on both hands, and we all laughed together when she admitted that all foreign languages sounded the same. We were thankful to have Myant translating for us. Hla had known Myant for years; he was the son of a bamboo farmer upriver, and had spent most of his life brokering bundles of bamboo with the villages along the banks of the Lay Myoe River. A humble entrepreneur with a knack for learning languages, he taught himself English to capitalise on the budding tourism scene in Myanmar. He took advantage of authentic tourism simply by approaching travellers on foot with an offer to take them upriver to the rural Chin villages to learn about local culture and meet the women with tattoos.
Times were beginning to change for this small community, and Hla knew it. Neither running water nor electricity had ever been a normal part of her life, and although she was content to live without them, she knew it was only a matter of time until modern technology swept up her village. She had seen the boats move faster and the cameras grow smaller year after year, while airplanes whooshed across the sky more frequently than ever.
She didn’t have an opinion on globalisation and the foreign influence rapidly reconstructing Myanmar from the inside out; in her eyes, it simply was what it was, and she took it all it in stride. It was that same perspective that had helped her through the agonising tattoo procedure many years ago.
It doesn’t bother her that wide-eyed tourists transform into paparazzi clones in the rare event that they visit her village because the tourists spend money buying local handicrafts – although not all of the locals feel the same way. These riverside communities have been self-sufficient for generations, and Myant sheepishly implied that a portion of the population would prefer to stick to the traditional agrarian way of life that they have always known.
She doesn’t mind posing for photographs as long as donations of supplies are given to the local school – a mandatory ‘entry fee’ for Myant and his visitors – and she requested that I make the donations in person before leaving her village.
Chicken is Hla’s favourite food, and she likes it spicy. Cutting open a mango to quench her thirst was a lifelong habit, and she made sure to keep our plates full of fresh slices as if she were refilling water glasses at a restaurant.
She was captivated by my iPhone, particularly my photos of other people and places, and she wished she had a camera of her own to take pictures of the funny-looking foreigners, who have increasingly made their way to her once-isolated corner of the globe.
Behind the striking tattoos adorning her face was a magnetic personality that was simply impossible not to like. She offered me a handcrafted blue and white beaded necklace as a departing gift that nearly moved me to tears before I continued on with my journey.
Drenching humidity and tropical rains made the miry paths through the village slippery with mud puddles. Each turn of the path invited those unfamiliar with the foreign terrain to slide and fall if they weren’t mindful. Beige splotches of thanaka, a cosmetic paste concocted from wood pulp, ornamented the faces of Chin locals perched at their windows, staring down at me from their bamboo-stilted houses while I navigated the mud slicks below.
Tiptoeing delicately along the muddy pathway under the shade of a mango tree, I eagerly made my way toward a group of three more tattooed women chatting together in front of a bamboo gate not far from Hla’s home. Each of the lovely ladies displayed the same identical tattoos covering their faces, and each had a familiar demeanour that immediately struck home.
Moving about with the stylish flair of a dancer or an actress, the women in the purple sarong had an air of royalty about her, brimming with charismatic panache. With the graceful poise of a seasoned celebrity, she posed for pictures as if she were walking down her own red carpet, basking in the limelight. Much to my delight, she preferred to double-check each picture, and we didn’t stop until she gave her approval that we had taken just the right shot.
The free-spirit of the group was a silver-haired woman dressed in a floral-print yellow shirt. She had a carefree edginess to her, unimpressed by my presence and constantly chuckling with the other women about jokes I could only imagine. I liked her immediately. The way she wore her subtle blend of laissez-faire attitude cloaked in an aura of lightheartedness was the personification of cool, while her unremitting laughter provided the momentary soundtrack for my visit. Dressed in a blue and red sarong similar to the others, the tallest woman had a genial presence that seemed to balance out the group. Even-keeled with an uplifting disposition, she made sure that her home was clean and that the mango was fresh. Her wise eyes fluttered about whenever she giggled, bewitching me with an affable charm. She was genuine and trustworthy, like a teacher – the gifted type that the students always stay in touch with. Just being around her put my senses at ease. She was more interested in the pictures of my family than in the pictures of my travels, and she proudly introduced me to her great-grandson, who waddled about her home with his baby face decorated in swirls of thanaka.
Myant and I sat together with the women while each of them described the tattoo process of long ago. The procedure was excruciating, but they learned to love the tattoos for their aesthetic beauty. They laughed hysterically as they reflected on the serendipity that all these years later, as travellers from across the globe arrived with cameras in one hand and wads of cash in the other, that their facial tattoos would be a source of economic prosperity in their tiny village.
As I listened to their stories chomping on my last bite of mango, I realised that the tattoos seemed trivial at this point, almost like powdered make-up, merely blending in with their sarong and sandal attire. A predictably clichéd line about how the tattooed women of the Chin villages are just like you and me is certainly more true than not, but to sum up their character in a sweeping generalisation just wouldn’t be right. There are many layers to each of these women, each one more lovely than the next.
I left the village with more than photographs and souvenir fabrics that day. What sticks with me the most is the vibrant character of each person I met – they just seemed so alive – and how much I hope to possess a similar energy when I reach their age. I’ll try to emulate their unwavering positivity and propensity to add laughter to every conversation. I’ll never forget their friendly competition to pose for the prettiest picture, similar to social media-obsessed millennials from a more familiar part of the world. They never seemed to view the world through the proverbial lens of glass half-full or half-empty; in their eyes, life simply was what it was, and they made sure to savour every moment.
One day, their descendants will browse the internet to find images of their tattoo-faced ancestors as ubiquitous on the web as the tattoos had once been among the hillside tribes of rural Myanmar. I just hope they know that the lovely tattooed women of the Chin villages were exquisitely beautiful inside and out.
An educator and freelance writer based in Washington, D C, Kevin Dimetres has a passion for exploring the diversity of cultural expression. A travel addict and basketball aficionado, he enjoys nothing more than good conversations with good people. A two-time Solas Awards gold medal winner for travel writing, his stories have been published on Passion Passport, The Culture-ist, GoNomad, Travelers Tales, Transitions Abroad, and The Washington Post.