Kuiyaw Neinpai doesn't know her date of birth. But most people agree she's over 100. She squats on her front porch in Mindat, a small mountain town in Chin State, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), hugging her knees and smiling. The tattoo on her face is faded but still visible 85 years after her mother stitched her tribe's signature pattern into her skin. When the grueling three-hour process was over, she washed away the blood that had run down Neinpai's chest.
If you ask the women from Mindat why their faces are tattooed, they smile and give the same reply: "We don't know, we do it because it's our tradition."
"The old legend is that [the tattooing] began in order to keep the Burmese king from wanting to steal the Chin women," says Frederic K Lehman, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, an anthropologist who has studied the Chin people. "Then it was done for beauty."
Agreed, says Shwekey Hoipang, a Chin pastor (Most Chins have practiced a blend of Christianity and animism since the British annexed the state in the late 19th century), in an interview with the Chinland Guardian. But he has another story. "According to my mother's lullaby… a woman without a tattoo who passes away… will have to stand in front of the judge ("Monuoi" in Chin dialect) at the entrance gate of Heaven ("Mopi"). The Monuoi denies those without a tattoo permission to enter heaven… A facial tattoo is therefore a spiritual safeguard for Chin females."
Today, young educated Chin females don't get tattooed. Neinpai is one of only a few tattooed women left. The practice was outlawed by the Burmese government in 1960. "The modernizing, socialist Burmese government saw the practice as backward and barbaric," explains Ashley South, a Myanmar expert at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. While tattooing continued in spite of the ban, it was in much smaller numbers. Now the practice is dwindling.
"The facial tattoo culture of the Chin people attracts international tourists, photographers, and anthropologists," says Hoipang. "There is a recognition that the tattoo culture will one day be extinct and the opportunity for research is disappearing." Chin State was partially opened to tourists by the Myanmar government in 2011, with further areas becoming accessible in 2013. Women like Neinpai increasingly find themselves on the end of the camera lens.
"I love the tourists," says Daw Har Young, the 50-something daughter-in-law of Neinpai. "But I wonder why they want to take photos of us," she passes a hand through her hair, the sun illuminating her banded face. "Is it because they think we're beautiful or ugly? I'm afraid that they might use the photos to mock us."
Lin Tee stands among her corn plants by her wooden house, smoking a long pipe. She echoes Young's concerns. "Once some tourists photographed me when I was returning from my field and I was dirty and unprepared," she says. "I felt ashamed." Both women are adamant that it is the height of rudeness to snap a picture of them without asking permission.
"Everybody wants to look good in photographs so I would prefer to wear my national costume and hat," says Tee. "But it wastes my time to stop for photos so I must get my fee." Young has a different opinion. "I don't want money," she says. "But I want them to send me a copy of the picture." I joke that if she demanded that her walls would soon be covered. She chuckles. "You're right about that."
Tee used to tattoo the faces of young women but stopped thirty years ago after local officials threatened to fine her. It was always the older women, usually a relative, who did the tattoos. Women got them between 14 and 16 years old. The men never did, as they were a sign of feminine beauty. "The tattoos are beautiful," says Tee. "The girls knew it would be painful so I didn't feel too sorry for them when I did it."
In the old days unmarked girls had little hope of attracting a husband. But some still risked rejection and refused to have them done. "I remember a few of my friends refused," says Young. "But, everyone thought they had ugly faces and no man would propose to them."
While the remotest tribes have been reported to still tattoo girls, most Chin women refuse the markings these days. In the villages I visited, I didn't see any tattooed women below the age of 40. But the practice re-emerged during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, when government structures disintegrated.
Tour guides made them stand there while 20 people took pictures; that's what I don't want to happen here.
"As a result in the end of 1988, a senior Chin female tattooist had tattooed six young Chin girls including her own daughter," says Hoipang. The tattooist was later arrested by government officials but was released after promising not to do it again.
Tourism in Mindat and the surrounding areas remains limited. The drive there is a gutwrenching 12 hours up shoddy mountain roads, and its rickety guesthouses are Spartan at best. Accessing more remote villages requires punishing hikes through squelchy forests. But new roads are being built. More foreigners are coming each year, and some are worried Chin women will become objects in a freak show.
That evening, in a shack of a restaurant, a jaded NGO worker sips a beer. "People are always saying they want to visit an area before it's 'ruined,'" he laments. "But they don't get that they are the ones ruining it." Sitting with us is Jochen Meissner, a tall and tenacious Austrian. He is planning to drive a 110cc moped across the mountains into neighbouring Rakhine State—something no-one appears to have done before. Our guide, Naing Kee Shein advises against it—"it's too extreme," he says. Meissner shrugs. "I'm an extreme guy."
Meissner is founding an adventure tourism company in the area and is determined to do right by the locals. "Some Swedish tourists visited Mrauk U [a more easily accessible town in Rakhine State] and reported to me that the Chin ladies were dragged out of their houses," says Meissner. "Tour guides made them stand there while 20 people took pictures; that's what I don't want to happen here." Some Chin women believe that tourists return home and sell their pictures; the rumour was started by a local pastor and has created an undercurrent of resentment in the community.
"If the photos are just for memory than I don't mind," says Young, Neinpai's tattooed daughter-in-law. "But if you're making a profit than I think I should be paid." Most of the Chin are farmers—hardly wealthy. Indeed, the United Nations Development Program found, in 2013, poverty in Chin state to be "the highest in the country," though it also noted it was "declining rather fast."
On the final day I drive past Neinpai's house. She's still there, squatting on her front porch, hugging her knees. I'm on the back of a moped driven by our guide's cousin who, like many young people in Chin, is chatting continuously about the gospel of Christ. I turn and wave. The old lady takes a moment to register and then smiles a wide, toothless smile and waves back.