It’s the end of a hot day towards the end of the Myanmar summer, and I’m taking a break in the shade of Htukkam Thein in the northern area of Mrauk U. I’ve just been schooled in a game of football with children half my height, but clearly more well practiced and used to the heat of their summer. I’m worn out and filthy. Not the ideal candidate for conversation. At the nearby waterhole, an endless stream of villagers collect water in their silver buckets and tuck them onto their hips before walking gracefully off towards the setting sun. A monk I met earlier is washing his clothes, and I make a few photographs as he wraps himself in a fresh robe. Then, I hear the best English I’ve heard in Rakhine State yet, ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you enjoying Mrauk U?’
A few days later, I’m sitting on a boat with Ko Soe, making our second trip up the Lay Mro (Lemro) River. We’ll be staying in a small village about six hours from Mrauk U. He has arranged for us to stay with a village chief, a man who knows a great deal about his tribe. The Lai Tu Chin are of Tibeto-Burmese descent, and have made their homes on the banks of the Lay Mro River. Many of the 53 Chin tribes tattoo the faces of their women, but the Lai Tu may be recognized easily by their distinctive spider-web pattern.
That night, the chief shares with me the history of his village, and shows some artifacts that have survived the homogenization imposed by the military junta. He shares things like bowls used for making offerings to spirits, traditional clothing, and even spears and shields. Over dinner we talk about his village, from the good crops this year to his empty schoolhouse. The conversation is much deeper than I had expected for such a short visit, but he says he was happy to have a foreigner take interest in his people. As we leave, he invites me to visit again. I have already made that decision. I will return to this village.
Eight months later, and I once again find myself sitting on a boat with Ko Soe. Only, this time, it’s not just Ko Soe. We’re joined by an anthropologist, a Lai Tu Chin man, a videographer, and others. We’re headed south on a journey that will take us to the Chin National Day celebration, and through shallow waters to villages well and truly off the beaten track.
After four hours on the river, we stop off at a village, presumably for lunch. Greetings are exchanged, and we’re given a seat and some tea—as is the way of the peoples of Myanmar. The guides have a few words with the local villagers, and in a matter of minutes, we are being introduced to Lai Tu tattoo-faced women from all around the village.
Everyone is excited to talk with me and share stories about their tribe and its culture. Over the course of this meeting, I make 14 portraits and hear stories from each and every one of the ladies. This is quite a shock, as I had expected from my previous visit to find perhaps 50 ladies in total as we traverse the villages. However, that number would end up being over 100.
About half way through this second trip, I meet Loo Phoe in the hilltop village of Kon Chaung. She and two of her friends are sitting in the shade under her house chewing betel nuts when we arrive. As the conversation unfolds, we learn that Loo Phoe is 101 years old. The women we have been interviewing have been old, especially considering the scarcity of medical care and clean water in the area. However, Loo Phoe says she is the oldest living tattooed woman of the Lai Tu people.
She tells us in great detail of the Lai Tu harvest festival. As animist-Buddhists in the past, the Lai Tu held festivals to appease spirits and ensure good harvests. Her favorite thing to do, she says, was to climb to their hillside cultivation area and celebrate the harvest with the villagers. At that time, there would be plenty of yu (rice liquor) and a sacrifice of at least two pigs. Meat was plentiful and the feast could even extend into the next day. At this time, she remembers drinking, singing, and dancing with her friends. It was an extremely happy time for her. She laments that she has been unable to climb up there now for years because of her health. She is also disappointed in the younger Lai Tu people who no longer celebrate with their traditional rice liquor, but prefer to drink beer or whiskey.
Another of the tattooed ladies, Hnue Munt, talks about the tattoo culture, and recounts the legend of a king who took many concubines from their tribe. She feels that although having this tattoo may have been necessary and a part of their culture in the past, it does not need to continue now. She says it is simply too painful for the younger generation. Her view is shared by a great many of the tattoo-faced ladies of the tribe, who now feel that they need to change with the world.
These people have faced years of human rights abuses at the hands of the ruling government, including cultural suppression via any means necessary. Their communities are remote and most are only accessible by boat. Yearly flooding makes their lives even more difficult and thwarts any efforts to maintain a ready supply of clean water. Although some villages have schoolhouses, only the larger villages closer to Mrauk U have been able to keep a teacher for any length of time due to the remote nature of the communities.
The Lai Tu have no written history, and so creating my book Hmäe Sün Näe Ti Cengkhü Nu—The Tattoo-Faced Women has given me the opportunity to create something unique. Within the pages are stories the tattooed ladies and village elders could recall. They shared with me their culture and tradition, and I have paired it with photographic representations of their stories. The book aims to give tourists a better understanding of the people they visit, and increase the quality of tourism in the area. With the help of a local translator, a version will be provided to the Lai Tu people themselves for generations to come. Printing is underway now that the funding is complete (via Kickstarter). It will be available as a not-for-profit sale in Yangon, Mrauk U, and via my website. All proceeds from these sales will be used to assist the Lai Tu Chin people in getting access to education and clean drinking water.
Pre-order your copy of Hmäe Sün Näe Ti Cengkhü Nu—The Tattoo-Faced Women. Share your thoughts on the stunning photography with #momentumtravel.