Chin state in north-western Myanmar is the country’s least developed and most sparsely populated state. It is a very traditional area where only the most adventurous travellers venture. Ollie and I decided, as part of our third trip to Myanmar, to spend a week over Christmas in the southern part of the state. Our first destination was Mindat.
The small city of Pakokku, an hour north of Bagan, is the gateway to southern Chin state and to Mindat. We spent one night there before taking a minivan on to Mindat the following morning.
The journey up to mountainous Mindat was long, winding and very bumpy; we twisted and turned on the hair-pin bends, going up and up and up. As we climbed we began to notice the temperature dropping; by the time we arrived late in the afternoon there was a definite chill in the air, a huge difference from the heat of the plains. Mindat is a hill station that was founded by the British; it is strung out beautifully along a mountain ridge.
Where to Stay in Mindat
There are only three guesthouses in the town and Se Nang Family Guesthouse, where we stayed, is certainly the best value for money. For 30,000 Kyats Ollie and I had a very comfortable, clean double room with a shared bathroom that had a hot shower. The rate also included a very good breakfast and free water bottles and clean towels every day.
It was actually one of the nicest places we stayed in Myanmar this trip, surprising really considering the remoteness of Mindat! The lovely lady owner was also very friendly and helpful, giving us plenty of advice and assistance with our onward travel plans. We stayed in Mindat for 3 nights, and then for another night after Kanpetlet.
We spent our days literally wandering around the small town and soaking up traditional Chin culture. There are lots of churches in Mindat, as Chin is a Christian state, as well as a few pagodas and a small Buddhist temple complex.
Impressions of Mindat
We saw many older ladies with the famous facial tattoos; they were completely different to those we had seen in the Chin villages of Rakhine state. Although it would have been fantastic to take photos of these ladies and for me to publish those photos here, we did not feel it at all appropriate to approach them and ask for a photo. The older ladies were very wary of us foreigners and even though we smiled warmly at them whenever we passed by, they did not return our gesture.
In fact they seemed quite cold and even hostile towards us. However, we weren’t surprised or offended by this; Chin is still very little visited by foreigners and I think most of the villagers would like to keep it that way. I think they are very nervous of any development or of their homeland becoming part of the tourist trail. Let’s hope Chin state doesn’t change any time soon!
We found Mindat magical; the scenery is beautiful and the fresh mountain air is a refreshing respite. It is also completely different to anywhere else in Myanmar; it fact it feels more like an Indian hill station.
Kanpetlet and Mount Victoria
From Mindat we took a 3 hour truck on to Kanpetlet, which would be our base to climb Mount Victoria on Christmas Day. Kanpetlet is much smaller than Mindat, consisting only of one main street up the mountainside with smaller villages branching off from it. We stayed at Mountain Oasis Eco-lodge, a roughly 30 minute walk further up the mountain from the village. We were very lucky to bag the last room on Christmas Eve, bartering the manager down from 50,000 Kyats a night to 40,000 Kyats.
There are many eco-lodges up this one main road but only two or three are available to book online – and for very high rates. So I would recommend turning up and trying your luck to negotiate a good price; if we managed to get a room on Christmas Eve then I’m sure you would have no problem at any other time of the year!
We stayed three nights in a nice wooden cottage with a hot shower; breakfast was included and was OK. The surrounding pine forest scenery was very pretty, though being December and at a pretty high altitude, it got very chilly in the mornings and evenings. Thankfully there was a wonderful campfire built every night; as soon as it was lit at around 5pm Ollie and I pulled up chairs and huddled around it. We returned to the fireside as soon as we’d had dinner and lingered until bedtime!
On Christmas Day we set about climbing to the summit of Mount Victoria, the second highest mountain in Myanmar. We first hired two motorbike taxis to take us up to ‘Base Camp’, about 4km from the summit. It was, without doubt, the scariest motorbike journey I have ever experienced! The road, if you can call it that, was atrocious – a jagged stone track that climbed steeply in bends up the mountain.
Our drivers were not about to take it easy either, sending our bottoms off the seats on more than one occasion. I clung on to the saddle and the driver for dear life! So, understandably, it was difficult to appreciate the amazing views as we climbed higher up. When we finally reached base camp and dismounted, with shaking legs, the first thing we noticed was the coldness – the temperature had definitely dropped a few degrees. Of course it had been cold and very windy driving up, but back on solid ground we noticed it all the more. Luckily we had our woolly hats, fleeces and scarves!
Along with a huge mass of domestic visitors, Ollie and I headed for the track up to the summit. It is actually possible to drive almost all the way to the top; walking along a dusty track with jeeps and motorbikes roaring past became very irritating – not for the fact that they were driving and we walking but for the fact that their wheels churned up huge clouds of dust as they roared past.
Luckily there were a few walking tracks that bypassed sections of the main route. As the sun rose higher into the sky we warmed up and were able to peel off a few layers; it was, however, still very windy in parts, which made it feel a lot colder.
Finally, we reached the summit of Mount Victoria where there was a Buddha statue and a shimmering golden pagoda. The summit is a flat grassy ridge and the views from it weren’t actually as good as further down; but we had made it and we felt a sense of achievement for having done so! We stopped and rested in a sheltered sunny spot – only to be arrested by hordes of locals wanting photos with us!
The hike back down was much easier than it had been going up and we made it back to base camp in no time; it had taken us about 2 and a half hours to hike from base camp to the summit and back. With no ride to take us the 16km back down the mountain, Ollie and I started walking. I would have walked the whole way back to the eco-lodge rather than get on another motorbike on that road!
About 5km down, however, a very kind van driver pulled over and offered us a lift; this drive was far less hair raising (and warmer) than the ride up had been! It was lucky that we did manage to secure a lift as by the time we arrived back at the lodge it was fast approaching 5pm.
Christmas Day 2016 was the best Christmas Ollie and I have had together in our three on the road; climbing Mount Victoria in Chin state was certainly a different and very enjoyable way to spend it!
Although the views from the top aren’t going to be the best you’ve ever seen, we would thoroughly recommend making the trip out to this remote corner of Myanmar and climbing up – for the beauty of the land, its stark remoteness, the kindness of the Chin people, the experience of staying in a mountainside eco-lodge and for the sheer triumph of saying that you’ve climbed Myanmar’s second highest mountain!
The Day after Mount Victoria
There are only trucks between Mindat and Kanpetlet three days a week so we were bound to stay another day in Kanpetlet at the lodge. We spent Boxing Day morning exploring the small village of Kanpetlet and some of its even smaller surrounding Chin villages. We then retired to the fire at around 2pm, where we stayed until dinner time!
It was a very chilled out afternoon, spent reading, drinking copious amounts of Chinese tea and chatting to a nice Swiss couple who had arrived that day. The following morning we took the truck back to Mindat, where we stayed another night at Se Nang Family Guesthouse, before journeying back to Pakokku the next day.
Chin state was definitely one of the highlights of our most recent trip to Myanmar, a country that we have so much love for. We plan to return to the state at some point to explore Northern Chin. The access point to the northern part of the state is Kalaymyo, a half Chin town in Sagaing division. Kalaymyo can be reached via Mandalay, Monywa and Kalewa or alternatively by air as Kalaymyo has its own airport.
From Kalaymyo it is possible to travel to Tiddim, Falam, Hakha and when it is open to foreigners, Matupi. Matupi is the link town between north and south Chin, which has connections to Hakha and Mindat.
Two Important Things to Remember when Travelling in Chin State:
1) In Chin state only Myanmar Kyats are accepted (no US dollars) so make sure you have enough local currency! There are also no ATM’s in Chin state.
2) Allow ample time in your schedule and plan to have to add a day or two into your itinerary. Transport between Chin towns only runs on certain days; whilst there may be daily connections between some towns, there may only be transport on 3 days of the week between others. Do not try to rush travel in Chin state – slow down and enjoy the traditional pace of life.
There is also NO WiFi access in Chin state and only two of Myanmar’s mobile phone networks work there – MPT and Telenor. Not Oredoo – which I had opted to use!!! So plan accordingly or opt to go off grid for a few days or weeks!
For more fun off-the-beaten-track in Myanmar, check out Exploring Mrauk U – A Gem in Rakhine State.