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Irrawaddy Daze

Children play ball on a bamboo raft along the Mandalay quai. Lashed together upriver, the makeshift rafts are floated down to the boomtown and used as construction scaffolding. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

ISSUE:  Summer 2012
A trip on a barge down Burma's river highway

With as much swagger as any uniformed man in flip-flops can muster, Sergeant Mg Mg Myint (pronounced: Mau-Mau-Mint) stepped in front of me and stuck out his hand. “Welcome in Myanmar,” he said, eye-balling the large camera slung over my shoulder. “What brings you this far north?”

Last night’s booze was on his breath, and a thin smile curved under the bill of his blue policeman’s ball cap: a hint of mischief or suspicion, it was too early to tell. But the sergeant’s grip was unmistakably firm, signaling that despite his small frame and boyish looks, he was the authority on board the state-owned riverboat that I’d just boarded on the outskirts of Bhamo, a sleepy port town in Kachin state, the northernmost part of the country and a gateway to China.

It was also the edge of a war zone. For the past ten months, the Burmese army had waged an offensive against ethnic Kachin guerillas in the surrounding mountain jungle. Tens of thousands of villagers had been displaced by the fighting and hundreds of lives lost, amid reports of rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The frontlines often shifted, at times within earshot of town. Foreign journalists working on a tourist visa in Burma always had to keep a low profile. Under these circumstances, a false move could end a reporting trip before it started.

Jiro, my guide and co-conspirator, offered the sergeant a cigarette. Though squat, pot-bellied, and prone to perspire, he always kept a cool bearing, with a silver tongue that worked wonders on cue. I was an American tourist interested in documenting life on the great Irrawaddy, he explained, the latter part being true. Would the veteran officer please share his deep knowledge of the river, his boat and its diverse passengers with us?

Walking the plank: Passengers and stevedores board an old flotilla steamer in Tigyaing, Myanmar. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

Warming up to flattery, the sergeant told us the captain’s helm was off-limits. But the rest of the vessel was free to explore and he’d be happy to give us a tour. We strolled around the top deck, barren save for a handful of teenagers who leaned on the rails thumbing cell phones; boxes of lollipops and ramen noodles; some electric toaster ovens; a broken exercise bike. I was snapping pictures of a passing sampan overloaded with watermelons when the sergeant waved us back to the rear smokestacks, where rows of aluminum kegs glinted in the pale morning light.

“Beer!” he said. He grinned, this time revealing betel-stained teeth. “Mandalay, Dagon, Myanmar… .” The sergeant ticked off the brands with obvious affection. Shame that the kegs were all empty.

It was late March, the peak of Myanmar’s dry season, with daytime and night temperatures that can be downright oppressive in advance of the monsoon. Taxi drivers in town had yanked the window handles off their doors, the only prospect of any relief being the annual water festival still two weeks away.

The fierce heat coincided with election fever. Having kept the country sealed off from the world for more than five decades, the ruling military junta had allowed the new government to hold parliamentary by-elections on the heels of wide-ranging reforms. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and democracy activist known to her faithful as “The Lady,” was campaigning for a seat, trailed by a sweaty mob of National League of Democracy (NLD) supporters and camera crews wherever she went.

In these changing times, a float down Burma’s lifeline held the promise of laconic rhythms I’d come to associate with the country—if the Irrawaddy River consented, that is.

Unusually low water levels threatened our planned 325-mile journey to the ancient city of Bagan. Due to both security and safety reasons, river travel was restricted to daylight hours and it was not unheard of for triple-decker boats like ours, loaded to capacity with 300-plus passengers and their belongings, to run aground on sandbars lurking two feet beneath the surface.

“This time of year, must be little lucky,” Jiro said as the stevedores hustled their last loads down the earthen bank and across the gangplank. “Maybe we get stuck, maybe not.”

Sergeant Mg Mg Myint takes a drag at a riverside teashop in Tigyaing. The veteran police officer was quick to open his heart, and whiskey, to foreign guests. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

A foghorn sounded and we drifted into the sluggish current. Several army conscripts sat on their haunches watching us with blank expressions, rifles across their backs, as the engines picked up. Off to the port side, a pair of British paddle steamers were moored in silence, tomb-shaped relics of a Joseph Conrad novel. These were the workhorse vessels I had pictured myself aboard, creaky and rusted. Riveted with wrought-iron sides that dated back to the nineteenth century, they were the first to ply the forbidding reaches of what was then known as Upper Burma: a back-of-the-beyond, rife with banditry and disease.

It was a disappointment to learn when we arrived in Bhamo that they had all been replaced years ago by charmless, Chinese-made vessels increasingly freighted with cheap Chinese-made goods. Another colonization was well underway, and no guns were necessary. But looking out across the baked plateau that receded beyond the opposite riverbank, I could sense a vast and fertile heartland, ever resistant to the vagaries of international commerce and politics.

Kachin legend holds that the Great Spirit of the world poured water from gold cups held in each hand from a seat high in the Himalayas. Mai Kha is the male offspring, wide and fast and strong; the Mali Kha, his sister, silent and mysterious, ringed by high cliffs and primordial jungles. These two rivers converge in the wilds north of the city of Myitkyina (me-yit-chee-na) to form the Irrawaddy. The modern-day version of this tale is that a young man and woman met at the confluence and made love, giving birth to a girl who grew into the benevolent mother of Burma.

Carving a roughly straight path from north to south for more than 1,300 miles, the Irrawaddy is both soul and savior to at least 55 million Burmese. Along the way, it descends through the northern “jewel box” and its wealth of jade, ruby, and gold; the “oil bowl,” where soy, peanut, and crude are in abundance; and to the “rice bowl” delta region, whose nine arms rake out into the Andaman sea.

River trade and transport on the Irrawaddy date back to as early as the sixth century, but it was not until the late 1800s, when the British fully colonized Burma through three successive wars, that the river emerged from obscurity to become a conduit to the rest of the world.

India was the crown jewel of the British Empire; Burma was a hostile backwater. Ambitious foreign merchants nonetheless saw opportunity on the Irrawaddy. When the government decided that a handful of cargo boats connecting Yangon to ports upriver would expand trade faster in private hands, a group of Scottish investors bought the fleet for the modest sum of 16,200 pounds sterling. In 1865, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was formally established, primarily to hustle troops up and down the river and tame what was then the most unruly corner of the Raj.

It was tough going, yet within three years the company serviced Bhamo; in two decades, the entire country was annexed and the flotilla was flourishing. Sailboats were sidelined to make way for steam ships and flats constructed in Glasgow, taken apart for the long voyage over, and reassembled in Burma. An insatiable demand for teak wood and precious stones stoked the imperial appetite, whet with heady verse from a young Rudyard Kipling:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier;
come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’
from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder
outer China ’crost the Bay!

By 1920, the Flotilla had swelled into the largest inland waterway company in the world, moving 9 million passengers a year and bottomless riches. Then World War II broke out. As the Japanese drove the Allies from the country, the manager of the IFC fleet, in a gesture of defiance, ordered every boat to be scuttled. Only after Burma declared independence after World War II was the fleet reconstituted under the Inland Water Transport Board in 1954, which has overseen the service ever since. Today, it operates close to 500 passenger-cum-cargo vessels that move a quarter-million passengers a year, or nearly one in every two Burmese.

Down on the mid-deck, a cross-section of the country had occupied every square foot of floor space: merchants, migrating day-laborers, families, Buddhist nuns, and troops on leave. Up front, the sergeant had changed into casual clothes. He sat smoking a green cheroot on a metal trunk, flanked by a line of thong underwear. “No sleep; must always watch,” he said, bulging his eyes. I didn’t see how rest was possible given the television stand a few feet away that blared pop music videos around-the-clock, its blown-out speakers rattling to a mind-numbing house beat.

Women laborers off-load sacks of charcoal near the Mandalay jetty. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

Still, with shade and entertainment—such as it was—the area was prime real estate aboard the boat; far more preferable, in any case, to the heat and exhaust on the roof. New­comers would have to score a place on the bottom level, where crowds would step over you when the boat came to port; or along the rails, subject to direct sunlight at certain times of day. The exception was an overhang at the bow of the vessel where a steady breeze blew without any glare: It was the best spot on board. That’s where I found Mg Ni, stretched out on a plastic mat trying to dial a clear frequency on his shortwave radio for the latest election news.

Twice a month, the forty-seven-year-old ethnic Karen trader would ride a boat up to Bhamo to buy dry goods imported from Yunnan province in China, a six-hour drive to the east. He’d collect these things, then float back down to Mandalay and catch a train to Yangon. A flatbed truck carried him the rest of the way to a tribal Karen town on the Thai border where he and his wife run a general store. Profit margins were slim, between $150 and $200 in a typical month. But thanks to the cheap river passage for a round-trip ticket, plus another small sum for his cargo of betel nuts and tobacco, he managed to support his family of four. “The river always takes care of us,” he told me. I later watched him scoop a bucket from the river and gulp it down.

A dockworker bearing bamboo shafts, Mandalay jetty. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

We coasted past vessels of varying size, speed, and seaworthiness: sampans and steel push barges, flat-bottomed cruisers and long-tail outriggers that ferried villagers from bank to bank; the odd steamer with a skeleton crew, moving at a near-standstill; and bamboo rafts assembled up-river then taken apart down in Mandalay, to be sold off as scaffolding for construction. Even at its leanest, the Irrawaddy was nothing short of a water-borne carnival.

The countryside, meanwhile, was dead flat, washed out by a haze that blurred the sunshine’s contours. With a couple hours to go before it sprang to life, I walked up to my airless cabin to lie down. For the relative fortune of $30, I’d been issued an eight-by-twelve-foot room with a dry faucet and a light without a bulb, not to mention thumb-sized cockroaches that ran riot in the dark.

Fiddling with the lock, I caught a whiff of antiseptic; then heard groans from the next room over. The door was open so I peeked inside. Two men reclined under a tangled web of intravenous lines taped to the walls. A pile of bloody gauze spilled from a bedpan at the foot of the bed, beside some empty bottles of saline. The one on the left stared at me with quiet desperation as a long, slow breath seeped from his dry mouth. The male nurse who was tending to his neighbor abruptly turned around with a hard look that sent me on my way, wondering what had befallen his patients.

Jiro woke me up as the Second Defile came into view. Of the three that lie between Myitkyina and Mandalay, this was by far the most impressive. Sheer limestone cliffs thrust hundreds of feet as the river narrowed around the boat, close enough that monkey howls could be heard from the foliage that tumbled down chaotically to the water’s edge. Lush greens and tawny browns blended into a psychedelic shade of purple, punctured in places by gold-capped pagodas. Entering a tight riverine cleft, we passed beneath a dugout monastery complex where barefoot monks walked up winding footpaths.

It’s believed the ascetic Lord Buddha lived here during one of his many reincarnations. These days, however, the area is a breeding ground for material riches. Every few miles the banks were clear-cut to accommodate giant stacks of teak logs, individually painted with lot numbers for export. Once the wood is treated to make it float, the logs are either loaded on barges or lashed to bamboo rafts that carry them underwater to Mandalay. These makeshift craft are ultimately worth more than many of the machine-powered vessels they pass en route.

Cooling off: A boatman enjoys a river bath at the Tigyaing jetty. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

While precious stones and metals are plentiful, teak is the cash crop of backcountry Burma. A single, fine-grain log can fetch as much as $30,000 wholesale. The state, of course, maintains a tight-fisted monopoly on the industry, exporting to China, India, and other major Asian countries. The money is then laundered to bypass direct trade restrictions. Jiro said the hardwood is then shipped to the West for the “long noses” who can afford such luxuries. Few Burmese can anymore.

At our next whistle-stop, Shwegu, I met a boatman named Mying Thein who happened to be employed by the Ministry of Forestry. His job was to escort state inspectors up and down the river to check timber preserves for signs of smuggling, an inevitability in a country where the majority of citizens subsist on an income of less than $200 a year. The previous week, he said, they’d arrested a group of Shan villagers running an illegal operation to China. One tried to flee and was fired on by officers, until he surrendered. It was a fair attempt: If a Burmese national is caught chopping down a tree, he noted, they serve an automatic three-year jail sentence, “maybe longer if they are forgotten.”

After setting out westward, the river—the “Banner of the Country”—had turned south for the duration. I was scanning the banks for the working elephants known to ply this stretch of river when Jiro found me. Evidently, the nurse in the cabin next to ours had alerted his superior, an Army captain, of my earlier visit. It was a delicate matter. “Those men are government soldiers, get shot three days ago by Kachin fighters near Bhamo,” Jiro explained. “Condition is critical.”

Why on Earth, then, were they put on a slow boat moving at eight miles per hour, at the risk of getting stuck? I asked Jiro to cultivate more information from the captain, to ply him with Marlboro Reds I’d brought from the States. “Working on it,” Jiro nodded.

This went without saying, though: Jiro was always thinking strategically. Since moving to Yangon as a twenty-year-old farm boy, flat broke, he had done everything to overcome an insular system rigged against the poor and unconnected. After volunteering at a monastery for a free place to sleep, he went through a series of menial jobs—taxi driver, waiter, machinist—before he was hired by a tourism agency. On his first assignment, his American clients complained about his Pidgin English—and he was fired. Another agency hired him, and he got a break with some foreign journalists who saw his potential and helped raise his speaking skills to complement his broad knowledge of the countryside and its cultures.

I should add, the guide I met looked nothing like the slender twenty-something in the photo on his government-issued ID. Jiro had slicked his black hair back, kept a cell phone holstered to his bulging longyi, and a leather pocketbook under his arm, “like the rich men … but I need one more under other arm.” His good humor never failed. And thanks to years of guiding foreign clients, he was able to save enough money to host a lavish wedding in 2005 with more than 300 guests at the Strand Hotel, part of the South Asian “Raffles Group” of hotels and the premier address in Yangon.

Six months after the ceremony, Jiro was stopped at a red light when a boy chased by friends came hurtling out of an alley and smashed into the rear of his car. The boy bounced back into the curbside and smashed his head, killing him. As the owner of the car, Jiro was sentenced to two weeks in the notorious prison at Insein. There, he saw fellow inmates beaten and might have endured the same, were it not for his new bride’s uncle, a Navy lieutenant, who pulled some strings to have him placed in a special holding cell.

Like many of his countrymen, Jiro knew the full meaning of “Orwellian” long before he’d ever heard the term.

It was close to dusk when we reached Katha, the last rays of light slanting through the canopy of a large banyan tree perched on the waterfront. The pontoon landing was packed to the rails with travelers clamoring to jump aboard. They traded elbows with hawkers bearing sweets on their heads, though none dared misbehave in sight of the sergeant, who was poised by the entry ramp with a baton he wouldn’t hesitate to wield as the harbor assistant lined up the boat: two short whistle bursts to go forward, one to go back, and a long flat one to cut the engines.

Katha, or Kyauktada as it’s known to Orwell fans, was the setting for Burmese Days, a novel based on his years as a policeman in the Indian Imperial Police force working in Burma. From 1922 to 1927, he was posted at stations around the country, but it was Katha that played backdrop to his semi-autobiographical book. In it, John Flory is a middle-aged timber merchant sympathetic to the native culture, tormented by the “lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them.” While the book wasn’t published until years later, Orwell’s experience in Burma helped awaken him to the plight of the global underclass and the associated paranoia rulers can exercise, priming his pen for Down and Out in Paris and London and On the Road to Wigan Pier, as well as Animal Farm and 1984.

This being upcountry Burma, there was nothing to cater to foreign travelers; not an Orwell Café or Lonely Planet–recommended guest house, not a single bootleg copy of Burmese Days found in street stands across major cities. The only nod was a “Warmly Welcome & Care for Tourists” sign, the kind found at every other stop along the Irrawaddy. So much the better. Rare was the destination that didn’t foil the traveler’s nostalgia for past to be present. And with tourism up forty percent versus the year before and visas getting rubber-stamped at embassies abroad, it wasn’t going to last.

A farm boy takes a splash in an irrigation canal, near Pakokku. The canal networks feed the rice paddies that flourish along the Irrawaddy. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

The downside was that, as usual, there wasn’t much time to look around—twenty or thirty minutes at the most. I’d informed the sergeant of my interest in Katha and he promised to give me a personal tour by motor-scooter. Katha, after all, had been his home base for the past three decades. But as we reached the jetty road, he apologized and told me he had an “obligation”; his junior officer Thu Sint would take us to the Orwell sites in his stead. From the hustle and bustle, a petite woman in a baby blue dress appeared. “My wife,” said the chief, beaming. He hadn’t seen her in over three weeks. I understood.

Determined to please his boss and guest, Thu Sint throttled a bit too hastily and ran over a dog’s leg. The blow left the poor animal yelping as we tore down the shaded riverbank, past a file of monks on their food rounds and tea-shops humming with chatter. Less than a minute later we screeched to a halt in front of the tennis courts where Flory dallied with his love interest. On this evening, a pair of couples in white cotton kit played doubles under the supervision of an umpire in a high chair. In between points, she asked if I’d come to photograph the match.

Around the back, I walked over to the former European Club where the bigotry of Flory’s compatriots is lubricated by gin and tonic. In the book, narrative tension is ramped up by a proposal to elect a native, non-white member into the exclusive fold of pukka sahibs. In reality, as in fiction, the natives won: The club was now an agricultural co-op. I scanned the walls for any vestige of the colonial days, for some hidden piece of graffiti or a memento—and found none. The blackboard was scrawled with numbers and Burmese script that looked as elusive as the spoken language was to my ears.

As for the two-story house where Orwell once lived, it was now the residence of the district police chief. Thu Sint stopped short of the gate and advised me to walk the rest of the way. The walls were streaked by rain and iron bars crossed the windows, a holdover from the days when dacoits—rioting and looting robbers—prowled the area. A gaggle of children playing in the yard came out to greet me while a woman, presumably the chief’s wife, chopped onions at an outdoor table. I was about to ask if I might take a look inside but settled for a snapshot instead.

The details didn’t matter. At this hour, Katha felt like the sultry, forgotten backwater of Orwell’s novel. The jaded young writer-in-the-making might well have been upstairs in his quarters, nursing a warm cocktail against the tropical malaise.

I awoke with a bad hangover. To atone for sneaking off with his wife in port, the sergeant had insisted on a top-deck drinking party with Jiro and Thu Sint. A spread of fermented tealeaf salad, green mango and chili, salted peanuts, called thouq, and two bottles of Burmese whiskey were laid out. At 1,500 kyat— less than $2 U.S. per bottle, Grand Royal was gritty stuff, and fast-acting. I tried to stall making a fool of myself by bringing my laptop for a screening of Dirty Harry, but a lack of Burmese subtitles strained everyone’s attention. In short order, our gathering lapsed into full-throated drinking songs.

Perhaps due to the fleeting encounter with his wife, the sergeant was in rare form, alternately sentimental—I want to give my sweetheart the best of things, but I’m a policeman with no money; her heart is studded with gold because she comes from a rich family, but I want to stud it with diamonds—and incongruous: Everyone should have peace in their lives. If one person hits the cheek, the other should bite the ear—like Mike Tyson! Whatever the theme, his voice was soft, raspy, and deeply felt.

Hard day’s work: An ethnic Bamar stevedore, flanked by fellow workers loading a delivery truck with sacks of lime, at Tigyaing jetty. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

At some point the on-duty officer came over to scold him for his loutish behavior, telling him that he was setting a poor example. When he’d walked on, the sergeant confided that he was in fact the senior man on the boat but his drinking problem had stood in the way of a higher promotion. He took off his shirt and called for another bottle of Grand Royal. Jiro, confused by the lawman’s loose antics, was quieter than usual. “I never meet police like this in my life,” he said, shaking his head. “Never.”

Since I’d had trouble saying the sergeant’s name properly from the start, I started calling him Chief—which he liked—then I beat him in an arm-wrestling match, which he didn’t.

Grabbing me by the arm, he pulled me to the rear of the boat where he began smacking his elbows and knees in the traditional Burmese boxing style, grunting for effect. Thu Sint told me the Chief was a fearsome village fighter in his teenage years, and the tattoos that covered his shins were visible in the moonlight. This was a lose-lose scenario.

An Irrawaddy port, pictured from the approaching passenger ferry. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

As luck would have it, a passenger far drunker than any of us stumbled into our gathering and began to shout incoherently. Not to be upstaged, the Chief seized him by the collar, cocked his fist and would have let it fly had Thu Sint not intervened with a couple lazy slaps to the man’s face. The night ended with the pair of them, officer and underling, passed out on the deck next to each other, limbs askew. But when I sat down in the galley for my usual breakfast of fried rice and black tea, the Chief was in the kitchen pouring whiskey into his.

“Chief on duty,” he said.

Our boat was now thronged. Dozens of itinerant farm workers had come aboard the previous evening, many of them young women who traveled in packs from farm to farm. To protect against hours of sun exposure, each carried a kit to prepare thanaka: a beige cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. After it is put through a mortar and mixed with a dash of water, the women artfully apply the paste in squares and circles in a morning ritual that tinged the air with a light perfume, equal parts sweet sandalwood and loam.

U Tin Oo tended to his feet. Accompanied by his eldest daughter and granddaughter, the lanky farmer had leather skin and teeth as long as the sugar cane he’d cut his whole life. For the past ten weeks, the family had harvested plots of cane from dawn until sunset, seven days a week, subsisting on a diet of rice, vegetables, and the occasional piece of meat. Cane stalks are razor sharp and working barefoot every day meant that cuts could scarcely heal. Puss was still oozing down his swollen ankles, but Oo didn’t seem to mind: He was finally going home, and he didn’t have to walk. In his sixty-seven years, Oo told me he’d visited Mandalay just once. It was a jarring experience that made him pine for the countryside. “Here, it’s always peaceful and there’s no pollution. If we have enough money, we are happy,” he said. “I love my land.” Although he had none of his own, Oo did have a thick roll of bills in his pocket. It would have to tide them over until their next village harvest, when they would sell peanuts and soybeans downriver in trade ports where they would get off.

First, the boat had to navigate the shallow switchbacks of Tagaung. The name, which means “drum ferry” in the Shan language, can be traced back to a general said to frighten his enemies by placing bronze drums in the torrents to produce an intimidating noise. The drums are long gone, but the mini-maelstroms in the area fray the nerves of seasoned boat captains. Smaller craft are routinely toppled, I was told, and passenger boats have been beached on several occasions. Adding to the challenge, wind rotors from the western mountains kicked up whorls of dust that impeded visibility.

It was a finesse move. Our anonymous captain cut the engine to zero, and let the boat drift into the bend, then cranked up the engine and slightly fishtailed for a few seconds. At the right moment, the captain roared the engine back to life again, driving the boat at an angle to catch the current as it looped back. Before we crashed into the opposite bank, the throttle was released again, allowing momentum to swing the rear of the boat back around. As it straightened out, the engines kicked into gear once more and we surged forward, free and clear.

Jiro was the first to relay the news: The NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi had swept the national elections. After spending the better part of two decades under house arrest, The Lady would take a seat in Parliament.

The historic victory trumped passenger grumblings over word that we would not reach Mandalay by nightfall as scheduled—with the exception of Tin, the army captain in charge of the wounded soldiers. His stress multiplied. Medical supplies were running low, the will of his charges was wearing thin. 

Dockhands load empty beer kegs onto the passenger ferry to be refilled downriver in Mandalay. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

“Ye Ye,” they had moaned throughout the night, banging on the walls and begging for water no matter how much they were given.

In his running conversations with Captain Tin, Jiro had learned the men were shot in the bellies in a bush skirmish with Kachin fighters, east of Bhamo. Their wounds were infected, and they had to travel overland to a military hospital near Mandalay, one that had a surgery department equipped to handle them.

With more than thirty years of military service under his belt, the captain was used to such obstacles. Shortly after he began medical training, he found himself deep in tribal rebel Kachin territory. He was attached to a special operations unit that lost dozens behind rebel lines; twice he was hit with shrapnel in the head.

On one night patrol, a landmine blast killed the soldier next to him and sheared the legs off the man in front of him. It took the twenty-five-year-old medic three days to carry him back to base. “Our soldiers have no real support; it’s not like in the United States,” he said. “I was very lucky. So many of my friends have died, and for what?”

A long-standing ceasefire between the army and the KIA fell apart in June 2011, following clashes over the controversial Myitsone Dam Project, at the confluence north of Bhamo. The dam, set to be the fifteenth largest in the world, was to be a joint venture between the Burmese government and energy-starved China, which stands to gain 90 percent of the electricity generated. To clear the massive flood area, more than 10,000 Kachin were forcibly relocated to so-called “model cities” where they live behind wired fences, divorced from ancestral lands and at risk of losing cultural heritage sites integral to their identity.

According to environmental activists, the dam’s location was on an earthquake fault-line, that might place hundreds of thousands more Kachin at risk, along with the long-term health of the Irrawaddy River ecosystem itself. Some fear the sediment needed to enrich the agricultural flood plains as far down as the delta would be blocked, while the river’s biodiversity—including rare river dolphins that we spotted on occasion alongside the boat—may be threatened.

Last September, President Thein Sein announced the project would be suspended: a positive sign to many. But Kachin resistance fighting has surged in the intervening months. Rights groups accuse the Burmese Army of ramping up its offensive. Both sides continue to seed the ground with land mines. Despite calls from leaders for peace, the conflict grinds on.

Yet for the first time in memory, the captain reckoned, there was reason to be hopeful. In January, a ceasefire agreement was signed with the tribal Karen rebels further south, who have battled the state since before he was born. The Lady was no longer under house arrest, and reforms were in motion that might hasten an end to Western sanctions. Maybe there really was change in the political winds.

“Before I retire, I want to see peace across the whole country,” he said. “That has always been my dream, and it doesn’t seem so far away.”

The hill from which Mandalay takes its name loomed in the distance. Burma’s second-largest city is its main northern commercial center, its air rent by honking.

Jiro and I bid a fast farewell to the captain as his wounded men were loaded into the back of an ambulance; he thought they’d be okay. Thu Sint had orders to stay on watch, but we agreed to meet up with the Chief later in the evening for a walk.

There was time to kill, for a change: The one-night delay had caused us to miss our connecting ferry. Before we checked into our air-conditioned hotel, we had to comb the passenger jetty to hire a private boat for the second leg to the city of Bagan.

That was easier said than done. Without proper credentials, boatmen were barred from taking foreign travelers anywhere on the river. Scant as they were, fear of the penalty exceeded their zeal for hard currency, and we were met with firm refusals. The only vessel available—a wooden thirty-footer—cost $600; take it or leave it. This was a state-sanctioned racket, outrageous even by third-world standards. And there was no choice.

Almost as deflating, the heavy outlay required another trip to the bank to exchange dollars for Burmese kyat. Authoritarian governments are generally eager to absorb a stable currency as insurance against their own, but not in Burma: If Ben Franklin has a mole or a wrinkle when held to light, he is rejected. The policy was vaguely amusing at first but soon became maddening and problematic in a country with no foreign ATMs or money transfer facilities, and just one agency nationwide that offered advances on credit cards.

Mandalay was, nonetheless, a boomtown: brash in spirit, mongrel in stock. It was the royal capital when the British overran the city in 1885 and exiled Burma’s last king, Thibaw, along with his queen, downriver and out to sea in utter humiliation. Favoring Yangon, the British reduced it to a secondary outpost and saw much of it damaged during World War II. Mandalay’s fortunes slid further once General Ne Win and his isolationist cohorts yoked the country after the post-World War II independence, making it over into a dusty grid of low-rise apartment blocks and administrative buildings. 

Daw Paw, 52, farmer and grandmother, clutches a water­melon pulled from a seasonal plot her family rents from the government. A small tax is paid on their harvest. Photo by Jason Motlagh.

For better and for worse, Chinese-led modernization has gripped the city in recent years. Subdivisions are going up around the city at warp-speed, along with shopping malls and billboards advertising skin-whitening cream and motor scooters. The heavy-handed influence points to Yangon’s affair with Beijing, one that has spawned a love-hate relationship with the Chinese among locals. When Burmese pedal their bicycles into Mandalay, a joke goes, they say, “We are off to work in China.”

After serving me a cold glass of falooda, Aung Gyi, the forty-nine-year-old owner of an ice cream parlor, did his best to confirm the caricature. Wearing a tank top and Hawaiian shorts, the son of a Hong Kong gold merchant and a Shan woman invited me to come back that night for the English football; or, even later, some card action in the back room.

“Gambling every night!” he declared in English for all to hear. Shops like his were known to draw eavesdropping security agents in plainclothes, so I took the gesture as a sign of confidence in recent political developments. Was he optimistic the country was thawing out?

“No,” he said, flatly. “Politics just talking, but nothing ever happen. Business first.” I countered that he wasn’t being serious, and he deadpanned: “C’mon, mister. You know I am Chinese. All we care about is money, money.” It was still stifling hot when the Chief stopped by our hotel, newly built with wireless Internet and a commanding view of the river. Sweat patches spread out from the armpits of his linen shirt as we hiked to the night market, the beating heart of the city center. Merchants hawked fake Ray-Bans next to mahogany-skinned Indians with carts of syrupy jalebi sweets. Gold and gem dealers were out in force, as were booksellers who laid out their stock on tarps in the middle of the street. Some NLD supporters peddled second-hand shirts stamped with the ubiquitous fighting peacock flag. Sales were soaring.

On the main avenue, a throng of motorists hundreds deep streaked by, waving NLD colors over chants of “Me Suu”—Mother Suu. A few monks were among the horde, their maroon robes billowing in the draft. Even for a first-time visitor like myself, such a raw display of popular euphoria was moving after so many years of self-repression. The Chief, for his part, had turned grumpy. He wanted back on the boat.

We sat down to eat at a corner satay stand. The Chief got straight to drinking. By the second handle of whiskey, he had segued from malcontent into a supple, expansive mood. I seized the opportunity to ask him if he was happy The Lady had won. He stuck his thumb out sideways and sheepishly turned it upwards. The Chief reminded me that he was an officer of the law and could be stripped of his badge for such a gesture; it was a sign, he added, of his sincere friendship.

Some boys at a nearby table started calling over to us. They tugged at their NLD T-shirts and repeated “Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San Suu Kyi” like a mantra. I was initially concerned the Chief would take offense at such behavior, but by now his shirt was off and he made no secret about where his allegiances lay. It was a time to celebrate. We raised our glasses in a toast, and they did the same.

Leaving Mandalay, we floated under the Ava Bridge, for a long time the only span on the Irrawaddy. The British-built cantilever stood alone until 1998, when the government initiated a spate of construction that has since ribbed the river with sixteen bridges and counting. We then passed the Sagaing Hills and their scattered pagoda stupas, before the terrain fell away, making it impossible to tell the actual banks apart from silt-laden islands that surfaced temporarily during the dry season.

Jiro said these islands produced the juiciest watermelons, and I suggested we pull over at the next farm. We did. A winab named Daw Paw puffed on a cornhusk cigar as she boiled rice for her two grandchildren. Lean and hardened by manual labor, the fifty-two-year-old lived in a bamboo hut with her husband and ten head of cattle from January to May. The season’s melon harvest had just netted them about 300,000 kyat in the local market, she said, minus 10 percent paid in tenant fees to the government. A family on their weekly shopping rounds came by boat to buy some fresh melons off the ground. When they had left, she walked out to pick one up for us and refused any payment for it.

The low water levels also facilitated another seasonal industry: gold mining. Chunks of riverbank had been chewed away by prospectors looking for a lucky strike. These led us to a jerry-rigged operation smack in the middle of the river. Diesel-powered engines chugged away as vacuums pumped skeins of dirt and rock into a row of sluice basins. The harsh stares thrown our way seemed to suggest an illicit operation, though such brazenness meant it was probably a government-sanctioned operation—or the side-project of a crooked official.

Extortionate as our vessel was to hire, we were glad to be moving almost twice as fast we had on the barge. South of Mandalay, the Irrawaddy grew blander with each mile: fewer toddy palms, no topography or line on the horizon. Shoes and plastic bags floated in the muddy current. Jiro said we were in the guts of the oil-producing region, but the rigs were somewhere far off in the hinterlands. With no Chief around for comic relief, it wasn’t long before the humidity and a hearty meal of curried pork and vegetables put us to sleep on the galley floor.

Pakokku, our next stop, is where Burma last stirred from the slumber of dictatorship. In August 2007, the ruling junta without warning lifted fuel subsidies, causing the price of diesel and petrol to more than double overnight. The move triggered a wellspring of frustration. Around the country, nonviolent protests were ruthlessly put down by troops and paramilitary thugs.

A stevedore relaxes in the evening on the jetty at Mandalay. Photo by Jason Motlagh

In Pakokku, three monks who had taken part in solidarity were injured, including one who was bound to a post and beaten with a rifle butt. The monks struck back, reportedly by taking ten state officials hostage at one of the monasteries.

We wanted to meet these men. The streets were empty so we tucked into the Golden Lucky teahouse to gather some information. The owner, Tin Tun, forty-three, sat in the corner in a white tank-top with some friends; a framed picture of The Lady hung next to the clock above.

“Pakokku has always been a center of patriotism,” he said proudly, noting that 88.4 percent of people in the district had voted for the NLD, the second-highest district total nationwide. The 2007 uprising had “spread like a virus” around the rest of the country, he added, and “it really started here.”

No doubt others might dispute the assertion, but in Pakokku high fuel prices had affected everyone’s economics, and monks felt the squeeze on their morning rounds among the people. They were able to channel our anger into something powerful that the military could not destroy by force, he said. The crackdown ended with scores arrested and dozens killed, but gave the silent majority a second wind. By turning violent against the monks, deeply venerated members of society, the generals had upped the ante, and risked wider violence should they ever do so again.

Ah Le Tiak monastery was a short drive away, down a leafy side street. The gate was open, and an ochre colonnade brought us to a courtyard where robes hung out to dry. There were no monks around—it was exam time, we were later told—so I went inside the main prayer hall. A middle-aged monk with big ears and a twinkle in his eyes walked over and introduced himself.

U Dhamma Thar La, the monk, immediately knew why we were there, and told us the full story we wanted to hear. With one fresh detail: After one of their brethren was badly beaten and several others detained, he said, the young monks were so fired-up that they held the officials hostage on the premises and burned their vehicles in the lot where we’d parked our car.

“The officials were very scared, including the chairman of the District Peace and Development Council. They really thought the monks were going to kill them,” La said.

Six hours into a standoff in which the officials had to be locked inside, he managed to spirit them out a back door and down an alley, to safety. How could Buddhist monks be so brazen? Many were killed during the uprising of 1988. Almost twenty years later, Jiro had witnessed several getting dragged in the streets of Yangon “like dead bodies,” while I’d met one at Shwedagon Pagoda back from a lengthy prison term with scars on his head, the result of repeated beatings. “We are patriots, so have no need to be afraid,” La assured me. “We stand for the people, for the truth.”

A willowy man in robes padded into the room and La fell silent; it was the senior monk. Apparently the eighty-year-old didn’t like to remember the violence of the uprising and frowned upon any mention of it.

“He wants to forget it all. I think I’ve said enough,” La whispered, and walked away.

We slipped under the Pakokku Bridge with fifteen minutes to spare before the 6 p.m. cut-off of river traffic, for undisclosed “security reasons.” The new girdered shipping bulkheads were set at the widest point of the river, more than two and a half miles from end to end. I told Jiro this must have benefited a steel contractor with ties to the regime; he corrected that it was in fact just how wide and high the river becomes once the rush of the summer monsoon arrives.

In the meantime, seasonal fisherman like U Sein Thaung would stay by the river to enjoy the best fishing of the year.

With less room to evade their low-hanging nets, he said, catching the big fish was easy. A collective of fifteen fishermen shared a slice of beach, taking turns running out their nets across the water. The daily catch was then pooled and driven several miles to Pakokku to be sold wholesale in the town markets, the profits split among the families.

To keep costs down, Thaung was making his own 200-yard net by hand when off the water. He spent an average of five hours a day on the project, whistling as he wove. He had a couple more weeks to go, but at material cost of $100, it was still half the price of buying a new one. “I am very slow,” he conceded, “but this way I am sure there are no holes for fish to escape.”

A rack of catfish withered behind him in the sun. One of his prized fighting cocks pecked the sand at its base for scraps that had flaked off; in a month or so, the bird was to fight again. Thaung would return to his village with a small savings and a surplus of dried fish, to farm tracts of soy and groundnuts that had been fed in his absence by the canals that streamed off the river. Theirs was a year-round affair. “We love the Irrawaddy,” he said. “She is our life, our backbone.”

Bagan: at last.

As a backpacker in college, I’d visited Angkor Wat, the sprawling Hindu temple complex in northern Cambodia. After a memorable day climbing around overgrown ruins, an Australian at my guesthouse told me that while Angkor was interesting, it was no Bagan, where tourists and crowds were not around to spoil the atmosphere.

“Get to Burma, mate,” he advised, but I never made it that summer. Time and money—but mostly money—had been in short supply, and visas were hard for an American to acquire back then.

Eight years later, it was satisfying to arrive standing on the roof of my own charter boat. The jetty appeared around a final, wide bend. Blackened pagoda stupas poked through the treetops, hinting at the temple plains ahead. The branches seemed to be alive, and as we drew closer, I realized they were throbbing with flocks of giant fruit bats.

I’d read in my guidebook that in the years after its golden period, from the mid-eleventh to the thirteenth century, when it was the capital of an empire, Bagan was believed to be haunted by guardian spirits. It was easy to see why. Jiro and I rented bicycles at first light to explore. Bagan once boasted more than 10,000 monuments, only a fifth of which remain. Some scholars blame the city’s decline on the Mongols of Kublai Khan who overran the city in 1257; others argue that fear of a Chinese invasion compelled its rulers to leave. In 1975, a massive earthquake struck and devastated what remained. Some of the damaged structures had been hastily slathered with a cement crust. This smacked of a socialist hand. At another temple, I saw neon-digital signage at the entrance and an interior full of tacky housewares stamped with donors’ names, a recent trend.

Thankfully, tourist coaches were still outnumbered by ox-carts and trishaws; and a quiet space for reflection was never more than a quick pedal away. Late in the afternoon, I scaled the crumbling Oak-Kyaung-Gyi Pagoda, a lesser-known site. Taking in the panorama with just two other people, I wondered if such an epic view would come free of charge—and people—in the near future?

Bagan is the best attraction in Burma, and arguably in south Asia. The masses would be on their way now that the country’s doors were being thrown open, and with them profiteers.

Down by the river, clay pots lay ready for transport to villages upriver. Smaller ones with ornate drawings were set aside for tourists disembarking from sunset cruises. Nearby, laborers dumped wicker baskets full of rock that had been pumped from the river to make cement for future construction projects. The Chinese were coming in droves to invest, Jiro said. As were the Germans, British, and soon, he predicted, the Americans.

“Hey mistah, where you from?” called out a pretty young girl, a rope of black hair pony-tailed down her back. She was carrying a tray of locally made lacquer bracelets.

“France,” I lied.

“Tu veux acheter quelque chose? Un petit cadeau,” she said, not missing a beat. “S’il vous plait, mistah. S’il vous plait.”

Her persistence irritated Jiro (who himself fluently speaks a half-dozen languages), and he tried to shoo her away. But there was novelty in this encounter: In more than a week on the Irrawaddy, it was the first time I’d been asked to buy a souvenir, much less asked repeatedly. I told Jiro that it was okay: no bother. A world of Western and Eastern tourists was about to find its way to Burma and Bagan. And this young girl was trying to make a living and hone her language skills in advance of what everyone recognized was coming.

And wasn’t he once a poor and plucky village kid—one who didn’t take no for an answer?

Jiro did what he does best. He smiled. 


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Julian's picture
Julian · 8 years ago

Great essay! Took an hour to read through but it says a lot that I was gripped for that long. May peace come to Burma. I especially liked the informative passages on the Kachin state conflicts.


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