In the land of tattoo-faced ladies (Myanmar)

Many times to look for birds means to go far from beaten paths, reaching forgot sides of a country. If the country you visit is an only recently opened one like Myanmar (the former Burma), the adventure you live can be even more exotic and rich in emotions than expected. The National Park I visited, during 4 days of October 2016, protects the area of Nat Ma Taung (Mount Victoria in English or နတ်မတောင် in Burmese) , the highest peak of central Myanmar that touches the 3,053 metres above the sea level.

The reached altitude means that the National Park, in the heart od Chin State, hosts a large variety of habitat related to each height, which one with its proper wildlife. Together with natural specialities, there are interesting anthropological aspects of which the “tatoo-faced ladies” are the most obvious.

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To arrive to the Nat Ma Taung slopes takes almost a full day from Bagan. The distance is not so important, about just 200 km, but the road are many times still old, plenty of bends and traffic, just in few segments properly asphalted.

After the crossing of the huge river Irrawaddy, the road climb into forested mountains.

To watch how people still work on roads explain why it will take a time to get a better path.

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After the first saddle, the lanscape opens again in a beautiful valley plenty of little villages and green rice fields.

In that valley lies the town of Saw (or Soe), around the bridge on the river.

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From the bridge is not infrequent to notice some scenes interesting for photographers.

The Burmese cuisine in Saw was rather rich and variated, including the typical soupes and fermented fish.

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Arrived to the camping in the village of Kanpatlet (also knowed as Kanpetlet or Kanbetlet, ကန်ပက်လက် in Burmese), at about 1,400 m, I had a short walk around.

The weather was humid and misty, the temperature cool: completely different from the warm and tropical Bagan.

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Neverthless I encounter few butterflies: Common Treebrown (Lethe rohria), Straight-banded Treebrown (Lethe verma) and Yellow Coster (Acraea issoria).

Among the scattered houses of the village there were some of the cutest doggies I ever see, with a long coat perfect to survive in the cold night of mountain.

Very cute and nice were the tens of children as well.

They looked to have different characters and attitudes: some were surprisely shy, some others more curious to see a “pale face”, some others with their better wide smile.

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The inhabitants that live here don’t belong to the Bamar, the main and dominant Burmese ethnical group, that is mainly buddhist, but to the Chin people, that were converted into Christianity by English invasors.

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Interesting was to see how was teached to vote by some posters.

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The day after I faced up the climb to the top of Nat Ma Taung/Mount Victoria. It is not a hard hike: from the parking at about 2,700 m are about 6 km to get to the 3,053 m of the top.

The weather was again deeply cloudy.

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The vegetation there includs maquis of Tree Rhododendrons (Rhododendron arboreum): unfortunately the blooming season was just started with few couples of open vermilion flowers.

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The birding, maybe because of weather, maybe because of season (usually mountain birds start to breed in dry winter season), was rather slow, so I observed only: 1 Great Barbet, 1 Golden-throated Barbet, 1 Himalayan Buzzard, some Hair-crested Drongos, 1 Verditer Flycatcher, some Grey Bushchats, some Yellow-browed Tits, some Burmese Bushtits, tens of Asian House Martins, some Striated Bulbuls, 1 Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, 1 Hume’s Warbler, some Whistler’s Warblers, some Brown-capped Laughingthrushs, some Green Shrike Babbler, some Streak-throated Barwing, some Chestnut-tailed Minlas, some Red-tailed Minlas, some White-browed Fulvettas, 2 Grey Sibias, some Stripe-throated Yuhinas, 3 Fire-tailed Sunbirds, some Grey Wagtails, some Olive-backed Pipits and 1 Rosy Pipit.

And of course the bad light didn”t help the bird photography.

Hiking along the rough road the sky sometimes opened in few patches of blue, a rare sunshine and a little bit of panorama, giving an idea about how much beautiful can be that place with a sunny day.

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I’m not a botanist, but definitely gorgeous and various was the flora, with tens of species of flowers of different colours.

The only species I managed to identify was the epiphyte orchid Pleione praecox.

Pleione praecox
Pleione praecox

The top of Nat Ma Taung is grassy with the typically Burmese statue of a Buddha and a golden stupa.

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Here I found a Indian Red Admiral (Vanessa indica) and few Great Satyr (Aulocera padma).

Great Satyr (Aulocera padma)
Great Satyr (Aulocera padma)

On the way back, walking till Kampatlet in the late afternoon, the only two mammals I saw were 2 Orange-bellied Himalayan Squirrel (Dremomys lokriah) and 1 Himalayan Striped Squirrel (Tamiops mcclellandii).

Himalayan Striped Squirrel (Tamiops mcclellandii)
Himalayan Striped Squirrel (Tamiops mcclellandii)

I was hoping in something more… But I met also two men riding a motor scooter with an old rifle in the hands… right in the heart of the National Park!!

So I had the first sign of the reason I coudn’t see any bird bigger than a bulbul or any mammal bigger than a squirrel during the day.

The day after the plan was to come back to the mid altitudes of Nat Ma Taung, but the weather in Kanpatlet was this and even worse higher.

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After a morning closed in the dark and humid bungaloo, at lunch time the director of the camping, the only one English speaking in the area, suggested to hire a local guide and to go with him to visit the tribal populations scattered in the neighborhood, expecially meeting some “tattoo-faced ladies“.

Different comunities and different tribes live side by side in the area of Kanpatlet: most of these people were characterized by the custom to tattoo the face of their ladies with a distinctive pattern of black signs. The reason of that tattoos, banned in the 1960s, was probably to make women unattractive to invasors that used to rape and to abduct them.

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So I’ve been leaded by Josef into the muddy roads of the village: he was born there and he could speak many of the different local languages, but he had lived 4 years in Malaysia as well, where he learnt English (a not completely understandable one, to be honest), before come back to his village.

The space among the whooden huts was a mix of plants in which everything had a function, going from food, to tissue, to alcool, to medicines. Of course there were beautiful flowers and orchids as well.

The first tattoo-faced lady we met was pretty shy and aloof. Josef was agree with her to be “shooted” in exchange for a payment and everything was very artificial.

It made me feel sad… was not what I was expecting.

I couldn’t tell if it was an happy end even for her…

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Luckly the children around were much more natural, some of them shy, some other more expansive.

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The weather was getting better, so, with some higher temperatures, insects started to move, with many species of dragonflies: Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk (Orthetrum pruinosum), Blue-Tailed Forest Hawk (Orthetrum triangulare),  Blue Marsh Hawk (Orthetrum glaucum), Orientale Scarlet (Crocothemis servilia), Chalky Percher (Diplacodes trivialis) and the demoiselle Echo margarita.

Some other creatures as well were around, including the wonderful Northern Spotted Grasshopper (Aularches miliaris) and the Golden Orb-web Spider (Nephila pilipes).

Few elder ladies were tattooed. All the younger ones saved their faces because of the prohibition of this weird practice.

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The second one tattoo-faced lady I met felt more confortable…

…going to wear her best dresses and laughing at the spirit beats of Josef, but covering her mouth with a hand to not show the few black teeth left.

Very beautiful was her little grandaughter.

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Definitely interesting, for whatever naturalist, were the impressive, and often huge, butterflies that use to fly in the gardens of the village: Northern Lime Swallowtail (Papilio demoleus), Red helen (Papilio helenus), Great Mormon (Papilio memnon), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes), Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Wanderer (Pareronia sp.), Indian Cabbage White (Artogeia canidia), Blue Tiger (Tirumala limniace),  Spotted Palmfly (Elymnias malelas), Common Cruiser (Vindula erota), Sailer (Neptis sp.), Common Castor (Ariadne merione), Tabby (Pseudergolis wedah), Northern Common Jester (Symbrenthia lilaea), Chocolate Pansy (Junonia iphita), Lemon Pansy (Junonia lemonias), Punchinello (Zemeros flegyas), Pied Flat (Pseudocoladenia sp.) and Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia).

As much large and stunning were the butterflies, as much rare and shy were birds.

I observed only: 1 Himalayan Buzzard, 10 Large-billed Crows, 1 White-throated Fantail, 1 Taiga Flycatcher, 1 Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, 2 Green-backed Tits, some Red-vented Bulbuls, some Yellow-browed Warblers, 2 Hume’s Warblers, some Chestnut-tailed Minlas, 1 Silver-eared Mesia, some White Wagtails, 1 Grey Wagtail and many Olive-backed Pipits.

Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer)
Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer)

Talking with Josef, the reason appeared clear: he was an hunter and he use to trap the birds in his garden! He was a good knower of animals and plants of his land, he was fascinated by nature, but he was as well the first to not understand the impact into wildlife of human pressure. I tryied to debate with him, but maybe because of his poor English, maybe because of his lack of any conservation learning, I couldn’t change his opinions. As much he was apparently insensitive about the “trade” of tatoo ladies, sold for a hanful of coins to the tourists, as much he was amuzed in telling me their costums to kill as much wild Gaurs they could effort to celebrate a wedding, without any condemnation. I told him about the importance of wildlife to develope the nature tourism, to save bovids and leopards in the forest, but even if he was luck enough to have travelled out of his village, he was unable to understand.

I did talks like that with the director of the camping and luckly he showed to be more sensible to the topic: probably having some birdwatchers as clients changes a little bit his conception of wildlife as an opportunity.

Anyway the impact of human presence in the National park was obvious in the clearings of forest even inside the border of park, with the dark forested slopes getting spotted of light green cultivations and openspaces.

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The last tattoo-faced lady was met in a dark kitchen, with not enough light for great photos, but with an extraordinary situation: the elder woman was there, smoking in the silence, emerging like a ghost from the black…

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So she came outside, still smoking her strange pipe.

She was nice and decided to play a flute with the nose and to dance a little bit, but she gave again some feelings of a sideshow…

I had truly contrasting feelings: on one side I had the impression to live something rare, to meet the last survivors of an era going over, to be one of the lasts to see the tatoo-faced ladies; on other hand, I paid for that… can somebody tell the value of a person, of her life?

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Well, maybe I had too many paranoias, the lady with tattoos just acted her character, she did her job, I had what I wanted (unforgetable pictures), she had her money to pay the food for her and her lovely serious grandaughter.

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The evening came down once again.

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Despite the light rain of night, I decided to go outside to look into the lamps of the camping for night creatures: funny moths, wasps, a mantis and a Flat-tailed House Gecko (Hemidactylus platyurus).

During my last morning in the Nat Ma Taung National Park, the weather was something better, with no rain and some sunshine, so I decided to go back once again to higher altitudes in the mountain.

With the sun the birding was more productive, even if with still very shy birds, so I observed: 1 Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, 1 Great Barbet, 2-3 Long-tailed Minivets, some Ashy Drongos, 1 Yellow-bellied Fantail, 1 Taiga Flycatcher, 1 Green-backed Tit, some Striated Bulbul, 1 Hume’s Warbler, 1 Stripe-throated Yuhina, 1 Fire-tailed Sunbird, some Grey Wagtails and many Olive-backed Pipits.

Much more exciting were once again the butterflies, with few truly extraordinary Himalayan ones that gave me the happy end of my 4 days on the Mount Victoria, in the Nat Ma Taung Nationa Park: Large Silverstripe (Argynnis childreni), Powdery Green Sapphire (Heliophorus cf. tamu) and, above all, the rare Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii)!

Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii)
Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii)

Luca Boscain

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