The Illusion of Eden: Cultural Tourism in the Chin State

by matthay44

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Had we been back in London, there is absolutely no way I would have followed him into his house. A strange old man, beckoning me in with quick gestures and a broad, gummy grin. It was everything your parents warn you against.

Nonetheless, I followed him into the hut, a basic structure raised on wooden stilts with a thatched palm-leaf roof and a courtyard made of bamboo planks. Inside it was dark and smoky, with the embers of an old fire glowing red in the far corner of the single room, and soot lining the walls and roof. As we stooped low to enter the front door voices began talking excitedly and in the dim light I could see a dozen or so people crouching on the floor, and looking or pointing in our direction.

We were beckoned to sit down and in our honour two of the tiniest stools I have ever seen were wheeled out, so that our inflexible Western limbs wouldn’t be overtly strained by squatting. We were handed pink plastic teacups filled with a pale yellow liquid that smelt of alcohol and encouraged to imbibe. In the meantime the hut’s inhabitants crowded around us, pointing, smiling and laughing, cracking jokes at our expense and smoking long, green pipes. One of them spat on the floor in front of me and slowly wiped it with her index finger into a gap between the floorboards. It was all slightly intimidating.

I took a sip of the drink I had been offered and glanced left to see my companion doing the same thing. Despite the unpromising smell it was not unpleasant, like a milder, sweeter version of saké. Perhaps this is why I found myself sharing it with several insects. They greedily dived in and did not resurface.

As the excitement at our arrival began to subside slightly, I turned to our guide and asked why the villagers, almost exclusively middle-aged or older, were gathered in this hut at 11am. “Is it because of the election?”, I suggested. “No”, he replied, “this is a wine and smoking party. That man”, he pointed at the man who had invited us in, “is the chief. He has invited these people into his house for the day.”

I looked back in front of me and met the gaze of an old woman with a heavily tattooed face. She gestured at me to drink more of my ‘wine’, and spat on the floor again. A naked infant ran over to her and climbed onto her lap.

It was not, perhaps, entirely unsurprising that signs of the election were few and far between in the village chief’s hut. My companion and I had arrived in Myanmar three days previously, and immediately headed to the remote Chin state, in the country’s northwest; one of the most recent to have the government imposed tourist embargo lifted. The Chin state is rural and undeveloped, one of the poorest parts of Myanmar according to the UN’s socio-economic measures. However, it is rich in landscapes, and in culture; the mountainous home of the eponymous Chin, who reside in its forested hills.

We had sought out the Chin state, I suppose, on the same quest that fuels the journeys of most cultural tourists: a search for the ‘authentic’. A search for cultures untouched and unchanged by the greedy paws of globalisation. A search for peoples “undeveloped”, eking out an existence in a pre-industrial garden of Eden as they always have done. The Chin state seemed a good bet.

I suspect that similar motivations guided the many other tourists who had headed to Myanmar at the same time as us. Our plane from Thailand was almost entirely comprised of white-Europeans, many of whom were middle-aged or older. For these seasoned travellers Myanmar offers a frontier appeal. Its turbulent past is sufficiently recent, and its open borders sufficiently new that it retains the suggestion of danger, and is all the more exciting for it. It is also relatively unexplored by western travellers, affording those who make it here an avant-garde satisfaction. They will see the real Myanmar, before it is corrupted by mass-tourism and the global economy like the rest of southeast Asia. Or so they hope.

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With the help of our guide, the experienced Mr. Saw, we had trekked through the jungle and up to the villages, hoping to get a flavour of this unique part of the country. As Mr. Saw explained, in the southern Chin state was preserved a culture “almost unchanged in 1,000 years”. Further north, the influence of missionaries had irreparably altered the way people lived their lives. In these southern hills though, until very recently, people had not travelled far. The landscape prevented easy movement. Consequently, the hill tribes were isolated, often as much from the next valley as from the big cities further south. Local customs quickly became ingrained and the spoken dialects changed every 100 miles or so.

There was, undeniably, a feudal vibe to the villages we visited. Families lived together in one-room homes, with no electricity and no running water. They cooked and slept in the same space, with a small stock of domestic animals running freely around their homes. Children were put to work from a young age, helping with timeless tasks like hulling rice, or else looking after younger siblings, often slung over their shoulders in makeshift slings.

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What did grab our attention were the colourful tin churches that littered the hillsides, a legacy of the Baptist missionaries who explored the region in the 19th century. Christianity was absorbed by the Chin and is still the dominant religion today, though it has by no means replaced the traditional local worship of nats, the spirits of the natural world, or lessened the importance of the shaman. Essentially though, the outside world had imposed very little on the tribes-people in this part of Myanmar until the twentieth century and the arrival of Burmese socialism. Then, the different customs and traditions of the Chin attracted the animosity of the far-left, who, as always, sought to promote homogeneity and uniformity, targeting diversity of culture and people. The legacy of this administration could be seen in the faces of the Chin women we met, as the customary tattooing, practiced for centuries and locally considered to enhance beauty, was outlawed in 1965, leaving only the older woman with dark green lines covering their faces[1]. Interestingly, the age of the youngest woman with inked features decreased the further into the hills we went. Their chances of being caught and fined by government officials had been much lower initially, making the rewards of a tattooed face an attractive proposition for longer.

With the exception of the missionaries, the most obvious changes to the millennium-old Chin way of life have arisen since the socialists were in power. For example, the motorbike has completely altered travel in these parts, with villagers now able to whizz up dirt tracks to neighbouring villages or down the valley to the bigger towns. Most of those I spoke to often commute to their nearest town three times a week, to sell produce and buy essentials that they would have done without before. It has introduced commercialism into their otherwise subsistent existence and in the process has swivelled their gaze; introspection has been replaced by dreams of a different future.

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Now, in 2015, it is clear that massive changes to the Chin way of life have occurred, and are continuing to do so at pace. The government is finally improving infrastructure in these parts, with roads being built everywhere we looked, and strong iron bridges replacing the swinging wooden structures that spanned the alpine rivers. Cheap solar panels could be seen on every third or fourth hut, used to power bulbs and, increasingly, smart phones. This was one of the biggest surprises for me, to witness families living in one-room huts with no electricity, and yet have kids lounging around on the floor playing with smart phones. I had not expected this technology to be so widely distributed in the Chin state, assuming that this ‘undeveloped’ region would have missed out on the global smartphone boom.

It was naïve, of course, to suppose that because a place has not been exposed to the forces of globalisation it has not been developing. A lack of white faces and western franchises does not preclude change and the loss of tradition. I had also underestimated the influence that China and other large Asian economies have been able to exert on Myanmar, even during its severest years of oppression under the junta.

By far the most telling sign of the changing Chin state, however, was the missing middle generation. In the villages we visited, apart from a handful of daughters, the young adults were nowhere to be seen. In a conversation that our guide facilitated with the host of our homestay we learnt that most of the young left the Chin state to seek their fortune. A lot ended up elsewhere in Myanmar, in regions where industrial jobs brought a good chance of a reliable income. Many, however, travelled further afield to Thailand or Malaysia to earn. They would return once a year, and continually send back a portion of their paycheque to help sustain their relatives at home.

While for tourists like us this news was distressing, a sure sign that the culture we were so intent on experiencing was doomed, it was clearly a source of pride for our Chin hosts. They explained that the well-off families in the villages would use what money they had to pay for their children to go to boarding schools in larger town and cities. This was the best way for their offspring to escape life in the mountains, and the best chance the family had of boosting its long-term income. “There is now an ethnic Chin in every state in the U.S.A.”, our guide relayed to us. One can only imagine what a shock the Alaskan winter must have been.

All around us, I realised, the timeless Chin culture we had travelled to see was fading. In the villages it might still look and sound and smell like it had not changed in centuries, but these communities were fast becoming empty shells, their sustainability and future draining away with every young ‘un that left.

That evening, as I lay resting on the dusty wooden floor of our homestay, the silence was suddenly shattered by the village chief broadcasting news and announcements to the rest of the villagers through megaphone speakers attached to his house. I asked our guide what was being said, and he replied that the chief was urging his people to go and help with the building of a new road to Mindat, the nearest town. It would be another blow to the isolation of this community, a further catalyst for change. But as the whole hillside had just heard, it was what the villagers wanted.

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The new road to Mindat being built. Note the remnants of a bridge that did not survive this summer’s record breaking monsoon rains.

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The next day, as we trekked up steep, jungled hillsides between villages, I found myself examining more and more the motivation that brought us here. It was ostensibly a bizarre decision, to pay a lot of money to come and live in conditions that are far less comfortable than home. So why had we come?

I chatted to our guide about this, questioning his passion for the area. He had told us on our second night that he had pioneered tourist trekking in the Chin state, recceing the terrain for years before inviting foreigners to join him. He said the process had taken him the best part of a decade, and had only really possible since that the government restrictions on the Chin state for tourists had been lifted in 2012. So why had he bothered?

For him, it was all about the culture. The Chin state still retained enough distinct traditions, in his opinion, to be interesting for him and for tourists. He did, however, lament the lack of time that foreigners (including ourselves) afforded to visiting this part of Myanmar. It was only with treks of ten days or more, which travelled deep into the mountains, that tourists would get a genuine sense of the place. But with the government only issuing 28-day visas for travel, he acknowledged that the reluctance to commit so much time to such a small portion of Myanmar was understandable.

For ourselves and, I would imagine, many other tourists, Myanmar offered the chance of exploration. In our over-crowded and hyper-communicative world the chance to go somewhere that few others have is rare and increasingly so. Such places carry with them the promise of experiences you have not already read or been told about. This makes them more interesting not only for ourselves but also for our friends and family when we return. We possess exciting new information and receive due kudos.

Travelling to the Chin state was simply an extension of this thinking. Having spoken to some friends who had already travelled in Myanmar they described the main hill-stay hub, a place called Kalaw in the east of the country, near the famous Inle lake, as being full of tourists. Indeed, many of them said that they saw more foreign tourists while trekking around Kalaw than at any other point on their trip, and that this detracted from the experience. It seems less special when there are a hundred others alongside you, all doing the exact same thing. Not only that but it inexorably changes the relationship between the locals and the visitors. The financial opportunity of so many tourists rewards those villagers who alter their attitude from one of innate, and often mild, curiosity into commercial, and often fierce, interest. Suddenly the whole interaction flips, and the tourists become the focus of the village and not the other way around. Local customs and traditional foods fall by wayside as native hosts seek to accommodate foreigners in the manner to which they are surely accustomed, unaware that many of their guests have come to the village precisely to experience the opposite. Ironically, these hill tribes near Kalaw may cling onto the façade of their traditional existence longer than anywhere else simply because tourism now sustains that way of life economically.

Unlike Kalaw, however, the Chin state was too recently inaccessible, and too lacking in infrastructure to cater to many foreign tourists when we visited. Hence, it offered us our chance to get off the beaten track and enjoy our more individual experiences. For that privilege we paid the price of a lengthy jeep journey on what must be some of the worst ‘roads’ in the world. But these transits were themselves fascinating, particularly with the backdrop of the imminent election.

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There were lots of bridges like this during our trek-in through the jungle.

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A granary hut, raised high above the ground to prevent easy entry by ground-dwelling animals that might eat the grain.

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Globally publicised, Myanmar’s general election was another reason we had travelled to that country, captivated by the chance to witness first hand the seemingly unstoppable victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

As we drove towards the Chin state, we passed several rallies for the two main political parties, the NLD and the current government’s Union Solidarity and Development party (USD). Supporters of the former wore red and the latter green, but their approach was very similar; throw a street party, and make it loud! In countless villages we passed crowds thronging a makeshift bandstand, where speakers or live singers belted out their party’s pop-song and people clad in (usually) red t-shirts danced or handed out sweets and other freebies. There was a tremendous energy in all of these gatherings and infectious enthusiasm on the faces of all those we passed. On multiple occasions our guide’s van was decorated with political flags, and sweets were pushed through the windows for us to enjoy as we threaded our way through a mass of people, who were invariably blocking the major junction in their town.

The contrast between these rallies and the attempts of politicians in the UK to engage with their wider publics was startling. In both cases, I suppose, the supporters align themselves with whichever party makes them feel good. But in Britain it is in our leaders’ rhetoric that we find comfort, whereas in Myanmar, it seemed, there was an altogether more literal interpretation of a political party. Nonetheless, it was inspiring to see such engagement in the election and to see the optimism, the unabashed celebration, it inspired.

By the time we had journeyed into the mountainous Chin state the main party being represented had changed. Gone were the NLD banners and chants of “Aung San Suu Kyi!”, replaced by flags bearing the hornbill emblem of the Chin National Democratic Party (CNDP). Like many of the ethnic minorities living in Myanmar, the Chin feel marginalized by the central government and want better representation for their people in the assembly of the union. In the larger towns, the CNDP rallies were some of the most energetic of any that we saw, but as soon as we trekked into the more remote villages of the hill tribes, interest in politics quickly dried-up.

While staying in one of the villages I asked our Chin host some questions about the election and was surprised to learn that government vote collectors would journey out even to their remote community to ensure the hill-tribes’ views were counted. This must be an enormous task for the central government to co-ordinate, given the remote nature of much of the region and the number of villages scattered among the hills. It seemed a promising indicator of this election’s commitment to democracy. But it also seemed at odds with the apathy of the people it was designed to help. They, the ones who had remained in their traditional homes, still had little interest in (the politics of) the outside world. The socialists were gone. They could tattoo their faces once more should they wish. It made little difference to them who held the seats of power in the capital.

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I finished the last of my ‘wine’, and handed the pink plastic mug back to the nearest of my many hostesses. She immediately turned to the chief who had invited us in, and he began to move another jar of alcohol over so that my glass could be refilled. When I realised what was happening, I mimed that I did not want any more to drink. I had enjoyed my time at the ‘wine and smoking party’, but it was dark and sooty and still slightly intimidating, both my companion and I were keen to be off and continue with our trek.

As we wandered through the village, I realised how bizarre our original touristic ambitions had been. Why were we fixated on this idea of authentic culture, and of that authenticity’s measure being the longevity of stasis? Why was experiencing the Chin traditions of the past important to us? More so than the rapid societal change of the present?

I expect it is linked to our desire for exploration, and for the unknown. These things find commonality in their current scarcity. We long for there to be places untouched by the global trends of the 21st century; timeless idylls where the good old days are still being had, and where the worries of our modern world are not looming large. Such places are like a cultural wilderness into which we can escape; different and remote from the lives we know.

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But the reality is that the pre-industrial Eden tourists seek is far from a paradise. For those actually living in the garden it is relentless hard work, and lacking in so many of the comforts developed countries take for granted. The Chin villagers have to do without medicine, electricity, transport infrastructure and flushing toilets. Even democracy has little relevance for their mode of living. For them, the grass on our side of the garden wall surely seems greener, and, I’d wager, for reasons besides our use of chemical fertilizers.

All of this sets up a conflict of interest, and a paradox at the heart of our tourism: we want to see the Chin people living the lives they are trying to escape. And all to satisfy a post-industrial craving founded on the rose-tinted truths of our ancestors’ nostalgia.

In the end it did not matter. Regardless of my preconceptions, visiting the Chin hill tribes was still an immensely valuable experience for me. It was fascinating to see how their way of life is changing, and why. It was refreshing too, how happy these people seemed despite the basic nature of their existence. Amongst the old people in the chief’s hut there was still a real energy and vigour, an evident enjoyment of life. Even as we had crossed the threshold to leave them, the whole room had erupted with laughter (presumably at our expense). I just hope we added as much to their day as they did to ours.

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[This essay was entered into the Financial Times’ Bodley Head Prize in 2015]

[1] Interestingly, the custom was invented originally to defend Chin women from the raiding tribes that attacked from the northwest. By tattooing their faces they hoped to make themselves seem undesirable to the foreign males and so avoid capture and forcible relocation [White, H.T. (2011)].