The Ethnicities of Myanmar
By Jocelyn Cheng,
Have you ever seen women with tattooed faces or wearing brass rings on their elongated necks? You will find them in Myanmar, a country known for its ethnicities, traditions and cultures that distinguish them from each other. From their food and language to physical features, clothing and lifestyle, each tribe has its own characteristics that showcase their intriguing culture. Having stayed true to their culture despite the arrival of modernisation, the people of Myanmar continue to fascinate and intrigue.
Tattooed Faces With An Ancient History
Travel to Chin State and be amazed by the tattooed faces of Chin women. A tradition started generations ago, parents of young girls would tattoo their daughters’ faces to prevent them from being taken away to be wedded by royalty or rich merchants. Fully inked by hand, it is a slow and painful process that takes around two days to complete. This tradition has became the norm of the Chin people and the symbol of beauty and pride. Interestingly, the area in which a Chin woman belongs can be identified from the tattoo markings on her face as each region has its own styles and patterns. The tradition is not practised as much nowadays, but older women in the tribe still carry the face tattoos.
Brass Rings of Kayans
You have probably seen women wearing brass coils in Chiang Mai, Thailand. However, did you know that the famous long-neck women actually originated from Myanmar? Kayan people reside in Kayah State, the smallest state in Myanmar, and are represented by brass rings worn around the neck by women of the tribe. The group once travelled to Thailand to seek refuge resulting in a shared culture among the Burmese and Siamese. In Kayan, young girls start wearing the rings as early as five years old, and continue to add to the coil’s length every year. They have elongated necks as a result and is considered as a symbol of beauty and it has little effect on everyday life as they go about doing chores, unbothered by the brass coil around their necks. Visitors are generally intrigued by this unique tradition, and it is certainly something unique and memorable.
Sea Gypsies of Myeik
The name itself is interesting enough your attention. Also known as Moken, Sea Gypsies come from a prominent ethnic group called Salone. They live on the sea around the Myeik Archipelago. This exotic group of people is a rare find especially in Asia, as the people spend most of their lives at sea on small boats. Their earnings mainly come from pearl-diving and looking for valuable sea products. If you wish to get a glimpse into the lives of this tribe, visit the Thanintharyi region during the Salone Festival, which is normally held in February. You can experience authentic customs of the group by witnessing the Salone people perform spiritual dances, folk songs, compete in diving and rowing events, as well as tasting the traditional Salone feast. The people seek shelter on land to avoid dangerous cyclones during the monsoon season, so you won’t find them on sea during this period.
Tragic Past of Mon People
The Mon people was one of the first few that settled in Myanmar. However, the brutal ruling of Burman King U Aungzeya in 1757 was the tragic beginning to the fall of the kingdom. This resulted in a massive massacre of priests, women, and children. Many of the Mon people migrated to Thailand and Lanna in fear of their safety. Unfortunately, most of the old Mon literature was destroyed in the invasion and Mon language was forbidden, causing the documentary of the tribe’s culture to be limited.
Dance and music play a huge role in shaping Mon culture and traditional heritage. This includes spiritual dance and musical instruments. The dances are performed in theatres and villages during special celebrations accompanied by background music with a flat-stringed instrument called ‘crocodile xylophone’ or kyam, and a harp (saung). Most of the Mon people live in Mon State or in the vicinity, such as Thailand and the Andaman Sea. They mainly practice Buddhism, but there are still a few Mon groups that practice animism.
Myanmar is now opening its doors to the world’s treasures, one of them being their distinctive ethnic groups packed with a rich history and culture. After reading about them, it’s time for you to meet them in person. Visit the website of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism or the travel information site for more interesting ideas and itineraries about travelling to the country.