On a day in late January 2017, I land in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, one of the last countries to open up in Asia after 50 years of isolation under the rule of a military junta. I’m only in Yangon for 12 hours before leaving for a five – day expedition across the Arakan Mountains, in western Burma. Despite being relatively new to tourism compared to other South-East Asian countries, in Myanmar, the heat is on. The much-touted places to visit – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake – are on the standard schedule. But I want to be taken off-piste. It is that curiosity about the unknown with all its challenges that drives me to a forgotten part of this exotic country.
“We are having some trouble with the immigration officer”, says Khai, the Burmese leader of the expedition, on day two, after journeying by air from Yangon followed by 13 hours by car from Bagan. We are in Matupi, one of the townships of Chin State, on the border with India and Bangladesh, where foreign travellers were not allowed during the years of the closed military regime. However, since 2015 elections, it’s possible to apply for a special permit from the central government to visit the area. We have our logistics well organised in advance, but without any further explanation, permits to the region, even those, like ours, approved a few weeks ago, are suddenly revoked.
Travelling in Burma is as much about unforeseen events as it is about exploring remote places. “Our itinerary includes a no-go zone”, clarifies Khai. “The Chin state is an unstable region. There is still ongoing tension between Chin sub-tribes and the central government. Travel permits get cancelled all the time.”
Wild, mountainous and remote, Chin State is Myanmar’s poorest and least populated region – with 75 percent living below the poverty line. It is home to the only ethnic group in this prevalent Buddhist country that has adopted Christianity. The Chins are a double minority: they are neither Buddhist nor Burmese. Due to a brutal discrimination, they have been one of the most persecuted in all Myanmar. The abuses include extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labour, religious repression and sexual harassment. The result is many fleeing to neighbouring countries – such as India, Malaysia and Thailand – in search of a decent life.
Thanks to Khai’s connections, though, a few hours later we have our permits back. Max, my better half, and I are accompanied by a five-member crew, who will be with us for the next three days – transporting our supplies and driving us across the most remote parts of the Chin State. This is far from a typical trip to Myanmar. The first part of the expedition is conducted entirely on motorbikes. Having no roads makes for a rough going – a few sections of the track are so steep that we have to get off the bikes – but this is the appeal of the forbidden fruits.
As we journey south, towards Rakhine State, we experience diverse landscapes: At first, we overlook panoramic views of the Chin Hills; then, we find ourselves immersed in a pristine jungle of bamboo forests. Most of the region still lives in a pre-electrical age. Among the 39 Chin villages, it’s possible to access two by car and ten by motorbike. The remaining 27 are only reachable by hiking.We visit nearly 15 different villages and eventually encounter a few older Chin women with the traditional facial tattoos. “I got my tattoo when I was about 12”, says one of the ladies, according to the chief of the village and her son – who translates our conversation. “It was so painful, my face hurt for five days. It was our custom and what all girls my age did then.”
Chin families used to tattoo their daughter’s face to ensure they looked so bizarre that they would not be taken away by the former Kings. The Burmese Socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing in 1972, as part of their programme of getting rid of the old and ushering in modernisation. These old women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to textbooks. We’re invited into local houses, where I see family life for myself. The Chin people are incredibly warm and allow us into their territory. We sleep on bamboo mats and take an outdoor bucket shower. There is no electricity available. The houses have bamboo walls and wooden stoops. I watch kids playing soccer. We are clearly objects of attention – this is the first time many of them come across outsiders. There is a soporific beauty to these villages, but it’s also hard to cope with the primitiveness of the place. I am exposed – this is raw, immersive stuff – and lying on the floor, as I struggle to fall asleep, I think of how I could have opted for a different type of trip. I find myself wishing the bamboo mat was a proper bed. But then I force myself to remember the “grease of luxury travel” – how ease of access is directly proportional to a journey’s loss of intensity – and recommit to the principle of why I’m here: Chin’s attractions are derived from being immersed in living cultures very different to one’s own. Here, in this forgotten corner of Myanmar, luxury is something different, something more basic. It’s about an intimate connection with the landscape and the people. It’s about leaving the comforts of home, opening our minds to new perspectives and letting the magic take hold. Everything else becomes irrelevant.
As our journey progress, we drive downhill until we arrive at Lay Myo River. From here, we leave our motorbikes behind and board a dugout canoe that will bring us over all the way from Chin to Rakhine State – another region with ongoing violence, but here the target are the Muslims Rohingyas. We spend two days on the river, feeling deeply and absorbing it all from the canoe. The scenery is spectacular: pristine Lay Myo framed by the Arakan Mountains. I’m overwhelmed. It delivers a rare combination of tourist-free spaces that few other areas in the world can claim. We watch the river getting wider and calmer until it completely broadens out. We arrive at the jetty near Mrauk U, where we see first signs of development. A shift in perspective – something that all true exploration provides – may be the ultimate prize to be won when the urge to make bold journeys still runs deep. Travelling in this part of Myanmar isn’t about ticking off boxes. Nor it’s about glittering lodges (there are easier places for sybaritic downtime – Maldives for instance). To me, meaningful trips, like this one, are about engaging intimately and humbly with the land and the people. I feel a certain debt of gratitude to those generals who helped keep Myanmar in a state of suspended animation. And I also feel inspired by the privilege of being in a country that for a large part of the 20th century has pursued an extraordinary policy of self- imposed isolation.
We travelled in an expedition across the Chin State to the Rakhine State, in Western Burma, from January 25th to 31st, 2017. We flew from Singapore to Yangon, for a stopover in the Savoy hotel, before taking another flight to Bagan. From Bagan, it took us another 13 hours by car to arrive in Matupi, already in the Chin State, where we spent one night. For the following two and a half days, we travelled on a motorbike, having the support of four Chin locals, also on motorbikes, helping to carry the basic supplies. We visited Amsway, Gwe Sar, Thein Sar, Thoun Nar, Wi Lu village and Thein Khaung villages in the first two days and spent the nights in the Ma Du and Law Thu villages. From Law Shu village, we continued on the motorbike, until we reached the Lay Myo River. At this point, we left the motorbikes behind and boarded a local canoe, that brought us over all the way from Chin State to Rakhine State. After two days traversing the remote and untouched Myo River, we arrived in the ancient Kingdom of Mrauk U, where we spent the following two nights at the Princess hotel. We had the help of Khiri Myanmar to organise all logistics of this expedition.