MYANMAR: Visiting the Remote Tribes of Burma

In early 2016 I had the good fortune of returning to Burma (Myanmar), this time on a photography trip where we focused on the fascinating - and vanishing - minority tribes of Burma. We visited with several remote tribes, taking planes, boats, and car, as all as hiking, to reach these folks who typically live far removed from the mainstream.

The Chin women with tattooed faces are a dying breed: what used to be common practice is performed no longer. We traveled by boat to visit three small, remote villages where some of the remaining tattooed women live. They were sweet, patient and agreeable to having their photos taken, as our guide explained to them that we wanted to share their dying history with others. It is said that the tattooing of faces was a mark of strength, beauty and womenhood: the women we spoke to said they got their first tattoos as early as 10 years old.

The actual tattoo pattern varies according to tribe: the spider web pattern with the rising sun at the forehead on these women's faces is the most common.

Spending time among these people was an amazing and unique experience I won't soon forget. My most memorable moment was interacting with a 102 year old nun: her tattoos are now hidden by wrinkles, but she was still beautiful to me.

We traveled to the east of Myanmar, in Shan State (basically the "golden triangle" on the border of Thailand and China) and settled in the town of Kengtung. In the past this area was known for growing poppy and trading opium, but now is largely a rice growing area.

One day we drove an hour from Kengtung, then slogged another hour on a very muddy path up to the hillside village of Panle. The village is very small, with only 23 bamboo houses, and is home to some of the only 3,000 remaining Ann (or Enn) tribal people.

Historically the Ann were tribal hunters, and instead of being Buddhist are animists (they worship spirit animals, plants and the elements). The distinct feature of the Ann is that the women and men chew the bark of a tree thought to have medicinal powers, but also turns their teeth black. The upside I suppose is that the bark is also a stimulant!

Many of the older women that we met were dressed in traditional attire: it is actually what they wear every day. As with the other minority groups we met, they were kind and patient, and willing to let us photograph them. As a gesture of thanks (and to receive good karma) we bought some handmade jewelry, brought medicine, and handed out warm clothes for the children (as it tends to be very chilly in the hills).

On our second day in the far east corner of Myanmar we hiked into the mountains through some pretty dense fog to visit the Akha tribe in the village of Ho Kyein Ntet. The Akha are an indigenous tribe who live in small villages at higher elevations in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos and certain parts of China. Like other minority tribes we visited, the Akha are animists. Entrances to all Akha villages are fitted with wooden "spirit gates" which functions to ward off evil spirits from entering the village. Upon our arrival, we had lunch in the hut of the village hunter, who hunts crows and then dries/smokes the beaks and sells them to other villagers who hang the open beaks at their doorway to ward evil spirits from their homes.

Once the villagers heard there were foreigners around, they all came out to have a look. The Akha are noted for their elaborate handmade headdresses, with the different styles denoting their marital status. The headdress consists of a bamboo core covered with embroidered cloth, silver studs, balls and coins (rupees for the rich) and colorful beads. It was amazing to me that the women wear these elaborate headdresses and traditional clothes as part of their everyday life. We didn't see a foreigner the entire day, which made it even more special.

After a few airplane take-offs and landings, and a 7 hour bus ride in the dark, we arrived late one night in the town of Loikaw, which is located in eastern Myanmar (in Kayah state), on the border with Thailand. Our goal was to visit the Kayan village of Panpet. The Kayan women in this minority group are also known as Padaung, and are most recognized by the long brass coils they wear around their necks.

According to our guide, there are roughly 25,000 Kayan people in this state, with another 40,000 in southern Shan State. In the late 1980s and early 1990s due to conflict with the military regime in Myanmar, many Kayan tribes fled to the Thai border area. Among the refugee camps set up there was a "long neck section", which became a tourist site, self-sufficient on tourist revenue. In the recent past, many of the Kayan came back to Myanmar, and the village we visited - while only an hour outside of Loikaw - did not feel overly touristy.

There were only a few other foreigners there, and the general feeling in the village was one of peace and calm....there was no clamoring to sell us things (although there were handicrafts for purchase, and we did our part to help the local economy). The Kayan women simply went about their business, and allowed us to photograph them when asked. They were beautiful, patient, and so very gentle.Kayan girls first start to wear rings when they are around 5 years old. Over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added. The weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. The neck itself is not lengthened, although that is how it looks (it's actually the deformation of the clavicle). I picked up a full set of coils, including the final last coil that goes around the collar bone, and it was extremely guess is that it weighs about 20 lbs!

There are many different accounts of why the Padaung practice this custom. Our guide told us that their own mythology explains that it is done to prevent tigers from biting them, or that it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by other tribesmen. The most common explanation, though, is the belief that an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. I was utterly fascinated by these peaceful, soulful women.

To view the full portfolio of images, click below