Mindat, Myanmar is located in the Chin State in western Myanmar. The region was opened to independent tourists in approximately January 2016 and I visited in May. Generally, tourists arrive on a tour, stay a day or two, and move on. Arriving is a little tricky by bus, but it’s completely worth it!
The people are very friendly and the culture is easy to observe. Women with tattooed faces are prevalent throughout the village and Mindat is widely known for this. Since the practice of facial tattoos is now illegal in Myanmar, only women around the age of 40 or older have them. You can also observe women weaving traditional cloth and threshing rice. They do a lot of work!
How to Get to Mindat
The best way to visit Mindat is via Pakokku. From Pakokku, take a 5-hour direct minibus to Mindat for 8,000 kyat (fixed price). There is a stop for lunch and bathroom break, and the road is paved the entire route. Buses depart Pakokku from 7 to 8:30 am, so I recommend arriving by 7 am.
Bus Bagan to Mindat. Take a bus or taxi to the Mindat bus station in Pakokku (45 minutes). From there, take the minibus to Mindat, as described above. There are absolutely loads of hotels and guesthouses in Bagan at all budget levels and wifi is largely available but can go out frequently so is not very reliable. They can help with your transport to Pakokku.
Bus Mandalay to Mindat. The bus from Mandalay to Pakokku takes 3-4 hours. Arrive the day before, and spend the night and a half-day for exploring Pakokku. Note: there may be a direct bus from Mandalay to Mindat, but neither I nor another blogger was able to find it.
Bus Yangon to Mindat. Take an overnight bus from Yangon, so you arrive in Pakokku by 6 am. Take a taxi or other transport to the Mindat bus station. If you arrive the day before, Pakokku is worth exploring. There is an overnight bus from Yangon to Pakokku arriving around 6 in the morning and your hotel should be able to assist. Yangon is a large city and hotels have wifi. Click here to explore hotel options at all price levels.
Pakokku is a medium-size city off the beaten path for tourists, although it is only 45 minutes from Bagan. There is very little information in the guidebooks about Pakokku, apart from the temples. However, I enjoyed my half-day and night there. I recommend visiting the big bridge, the university, and the 24-hour noodle shop. There are plenty of hotels in Pakokku, however, none are listed in the guidebook I had. Generally, tourists visit Bagan, so Pakokku hotels geared for business people. Be sure you find a hotel that has the proper permit to host foreign visitors, as most little guesthouses do not.
Departing Mindat – For Pakokku or Matupi
Departing Mindat is very easy. There is a central bus station in the little town, just near the market.
Bus Mindat to Bagan or Pakkoku. There are many morning minibusses to Pakokku. I recommend you visit the bus station the day before to purchase your ticket. They are very helpful and will tell you exactly where you will find the bus in the morning. From Pakokku take a taxi or motorbike to the buses that depart for Bagan (45 mins).
Bus Mindat to Matupi (5 hours). The road from Pakokku to Mindat is smooth and paved.
Pakokku to Matupi (12-24 hours). Buses to Matupi are direct from Pakokku. The road winds around the mountainsides and many portions are unpaved. Bring your anti-nausea medicine, if you’ll need it. Also, if you have perfect weather and no car trouble, the ride may take as little as 10 hours. However, with the possibility of pouring rain, hail, landslide, tree across the road, and more, prepare for a long ride. There is only one hotel in Matupi that has a permit allowing foreigners to stay. It’s about $35 per night and is a basic room with shared bathroom. There is a living room where everyone can sit on the couch and watch television.
Where to Sleep in Mindat
I stayed at Tun Guesthouse and it was great apart from mosquitos in the television room in the evening (bring mosquito spray or wear pants and long sleeves). I just showed up and got a room and was the only foreign tourist. Most rooms share a bathroom ($20) but one room has a bathroom ensuite.
I met other tourists who stayed at other accommodation in Mindat that sounded quite bad, and even my guidebook suggested Tun Guesthouse, so stick with that unless you have a recent update from a fellow traveler.
Myanmar requires guesthouses have a special permit to host foreigners, and Couchsurfing overnight is not permitted.
Solo Travel to Mindat
When I arrived in Mindat on Wednesday afternoon, it was overcast and the clouds were letting down an occasional drizzle. The raindrops were enough to be cooling; not enough to actually get anything wet. Since the weather was cool and completely walkable in mid-afternoon, I decided to explore a bit. (At low elevations Myanmar is hot in May– over 100F / 42C.) I wanted to see the women who were strong enough to have their faces tattooed, and without any painkiller, no doubt.
Everyone in Mindat was very friendly and helpful or just sort of ignored me. I felt perfectly safe walking alone in town and on rural roads around the outskirts of town. In fact, both men and women invited me into their homes, took me around by motorbike, and gave me walking tours of their neighborhood. I could not have imagined a more welcoming experience. Younger people especially are keen to practice their English, but having a phrasebook helps immensely.
Walking Around Town
While at Lake Indawgyi in the far north of Myanmar a travel friend had shown me a photo of a woman with a facial tattoo over breakfast one morning. The timing was perfect. I was debating whether to overstay my visa (just pay a little extra money when exiting the country). And, I was getting over a terrible head cold, and a 20-hour wild train ride separated me from the civilized world, i.e. wifi. This was exactly the motivation I needed to board that train for the return journey to Mandalay.
Arriving in Mindat just after 2 pm on a Wednesday, I checked into Tun Guesthouse, washed my face and hands of road dust and bus germs, and ventured out for an afternoon walk to photograph women with tattooed faces. Immediately I saw many women walking in the bustling town, some of whom had tattooed faces. I was excited to see women with tattooed faces, as I find the concept of tattoos in general fascinating, but facial tattoos—well, that is an entirely different level of pain endured from the typical tattoos I see in California, USA. However, I felt awkward stopping the women with tattoos and requesting a portrait; especially since I didn’t have a translator or a way of quickly introducing myself.
Instead, I kept walking, said hello in the local Chin dialect and smiled at lots of people, and even chatted with a few people who approached me, young and old alike. Sometimes it was only ‘hello’, other times it led to ‘where are you going?’, which actually means ‘where are you from?’. They used all the English they knew and asked their friends for advice when they got stuck for words. When a group of teenage girls ran out of English words, they giggled hysterically and ran away, peeking back at me over their shoulders.
One guy had the shortest interaction of anyone I’d met in Myanmar. He only said “Hello,” and then stuck out his arm to shake my hand. “Thank you,” he said, without a smile, which is atypical in Myanmar, where people are known for smiling. Then, he turned around and walked away, leaving me standing awkwardly in front of a shop.
A Fork in the Road
Arriving at a fork in the road, I headed downhill towards a village. All the wooden homes were at street level on the left side of the newly paved hillside road. The right side was steep dirt with sparse, tall grass, sometimes with a few goats munching on it.
Soon, I came upon a woman sitting on her front porch. She had a tattooed face and a modern haircut. Most women here have the traditional long hair that reaches their waist. I waved at her and when she waved back I approached and pointed at my camera gesturing a photo request. I wasn’t completely sure of her response, so I slowly lifted my camera to see if she would make the international gesture of “No way, are you crazy thinking you can take a photo of me?!?” Instead, she looked into my lens for a few moments, and in the dim light of the overcast day and her covered porch I held my camera steady for a few shots until she turned away.
Good Manners in Photography
Her eyes seemed cloudy, but as always, I offered the LCD screen on my camera for her to have a look at her photograph. She grinned a huge smile, raised her hands to her mouth, and burst out laughing at her photo. Back in Pakokku, I had learned the Mindat-Chin dialect word for thank you. “Nabuni, nabuni, nabuni,” I repeated over and over, hoping she understood despite my terrible pronunciation.
Further along the road, a woman my age sitting on her porch with friends and family waved at me to come inside her home. After hesitating in case I was misunderstanding an invitation, I flipped off my sandals and clambered awkwardly up the ladder. I’m always awkward going up house ladders, as they’re all different and they all hurt my feet.
The moment I was comfortably seated, I was passed the man’s huge glass mug of a yellow drink and encouraged to imbibe. Filled to the brim, I sipped the unknown drink. It wasn’t palm wine. This was something I had never tasted before, and I definitely was not used to the sour flavor of the warm, slightly bubbly juice. “More, drink more,” they gestured while saying words I didn’t understand. So, I sipped a little more, since I was actually quite thirsty.
The woman who had invited me into her home wore a white sleeveless shirt and her face was decorated with thanaka, the decorative sunblock made from a plant. Joking with her friend, I leaned in to participate in the fun and she turned the screen toward me so I could watch the grainy video of people dancing. That’s when I realized how I could give something in exchange for their friendliness.
I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and found a 17-second video I had taken of the Bungtla Waterfall, located many hours away near Matupi. I knew that the waterfall was famous throughout the region, so I said its name and showed them the video. Then the women took my phone and proceeded to watch every single video clip on it! Thank goodness I didn’t have anything too personal, although that might’ve provided a ‘bonded for life’ moment!
I’m not sure which they appreciated more– watching my videos or watching any video on a clear, bright, and large screen. “It’s so nice,” was a consistent comment throughout my time in Myanmar whenever anyone saw my phone screen. In fact, the clarity on my phone is better than that of most of the televisions I saw, since reception almost always included some amount of static.
After about an hour, it poured rain for a few minutes. When the rain cleared I decided I should head back to my guesthouse since it was an uphill walk, and I really was getting sleepy. Seven-hour minibus rides on windy, bumpy roads with no safety barriers between the road and the edges of a cliff on any of the innumerable blind curves are exhausting.
Walking Shoes: Everyone in Myanmar wears flip-flops, and so I wore my Teva flip-flops throughout my 5 weeks in Myanmar. They don’t really blend in since my straps are cloth and everyone else’s are plastic. I purchase a new pair of these flip flops each year since they do become flat when you walk many miles each day.
Backpack: I was tired of looking like the dorky tourist wearing a backpack around town, so just slung on my SLR camera. I use a quick-adjust Joby camera strap for women, which I love (there’s a men’s version also).
Dry Bag: I took a rolled up dry bag in case it rained while I was walking. Dry bags are made for keeping contents dry while kayaking or canoeing, but they are also great for keeping cameras dry in the rain. Flattened and rolled, they can be clipped to your belt buckle. Very lightweight and pack tiny.
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