Crossing Myanmar by boat – A river fairytale

Kipling was right, Myanmar is quite unlike any land I know about. To explore Myanmar’s backcountry I set off for an month long river adventure in a small wooden boat all the way from the north down to the Andaman Sea. Hundreds of small villages line the river, almost none of them have been visited from foreigners before. The most fascinating aspect about this trip is to meet the real people of Myanmar. The farmers, the fishermen, the self-sufficients, the working poor, those who wait for Myanmar to raise. Their generosity is unique and overwhelming.

About two Pseud-Pirates with a big dream

The car door of a white Toyota Senna opens. Shortly after, we, 10 immigration officials and the airport police of Yangon are waiting for the plane to come. Seems we get deported.

1 Month ago. Locals said it’s not possible, there would be a high risk to die on the way due to robbers, snakes, our lack of boat skills or even to the act of god. But isn’t it the unknown that attracts the foolish explorers? In fact, nobody really knew, since no one ever tried it. When meeting my Australian travelmate Will Ladson again after a half a year of separate journeys, we decided to join forces and to set off for a crazy adventure. Soon after we scheduled the first meeting of bearded boat captains to find out what sort of skills and experience we both have. It turned out there aren’t any. Hence, it all seemed to be perfect. Our only goal was to make it with a small timber boat from the top north of Myanmar down to the Andaman Sea (and perhaps Australia).

A Burmese friend from Mandalay wrote down a sentence in burmese for us. It said, „Sir, we’d like to buy your boat“. We showed up at the jetty in Khamti and asked around. After the successful purchase of a small wooden boat and some supply (basically food and camping stuff) we set off downstream for a rough one month journey and crashed into a parked boat.

During this time of the year, the Chidwin and the Irrawaddy River are extremely shallow. Vessel captains hardly find a way through the mushrooming sandbanks. What’s a hassle for them was good for us. Because the drought offered us plenty of camping spots all the way down. The nights were always exciting. Sometimes we have been visited by village chiefs (supported with carpets, improvised floor lamps, and car batteries), sometimes 30-50 farmers with machetes and speers came to investigate, sometimes (to nobody’s surprise) a boat loaded with a bunch of immigration officers and/or policemen showed up. Every day we would park our boat next to some village ladies washing their clothes (or themselves) and ventured trough random villages. I was overwhelmed by places far away from the beaten track. Such as hick towns without names, sandbanks without sights where the villagers settle temporarily to catch fish or cultivate veggies, a unique mix of nature and local living. Hundreds of small villages line the river, almost none of them have been visited by foreigners (since Japanese invaders). If one like being stared at by inquisitive locals in off the beaten track places – that’s the way to go! A fascinating aspect about this trip was to meet the real PEOPLE of Myanmar. The farmers, the fishermen, the self-sufficient, the working poor, those who wait for Myanmar to raise. Their generosity is overwhelming. Every single day we got a gift in form of something edible or at least a big smile. That’s what Myanmar is all about I guess…

We have named our boat the “River Pirate” after several meetings within the board of bearded executives. Commander Will insisted on my suggestion to name the boat „Granny“ – I thought that’s a good match because the boat leaks, roars and gets overtaken by anyone else. My favorite name „Mayday“ also had been dismissed. „Mayday“ would go quite well because we occasionally crash into other boats, the engine spits flames and we stuck on sandbanks all the time. In my personal opinion „River Pirate“ isn’t what the reality looks like. For pirates we get towed far too often and the only thing we steal is wet firewood. besides that, checking emails and using moisturizing creme for flaky legs while floating isn’t really pirate business. Nevertheless, we did something illegal, harrrr, which probably comes close to what pirates do all the time.

We met immigration officers and police at the very start in Khamti, ignored their appeal to surrender (we were both on expired visa too), mostly they came investigating late at night or just after some villagers gave them a call. Some would let us go, some escorted us to the police station to spend the night there (for our own safety). We had been close to the Andaman Sea and stopped to stock up on some supplies. After being invited for an uncountable amount of beer with a handful of villagers we got officially a permission to stay on a sandbank across town (first time). We steered over in a zigzag course. So did 8 police guys and a higher official soon after and made us move 300 meters up north. “just for security reasons”, they explained. Followed by the usual passport control, surprised faces after discovering our expired visas and taking some selfies. Three hours later some torches lid our sleepy eyes. Immigration authorities. Followed by the usual passport control, surprised faces after discovering our expired visas and taking some selfies. The next morning we found our boat poorly locked up (We decided not to hang our pirate flag any longer) – Than the main gathering with 2 high officials (one undercover), 6 armed police guys, some clerks and 4 guys from immigration. A serious conversation took place with the main topics; illegal boat ownership, illegal discovery of restricted areas and the “Burma Immigration Act from 1947 – it literally said, if you do stuff like this, our president has the allowence to kick you out”. Followed by the usual passport control, surprised faces after discovering our expired visas and taking some selfies of course. To our biggest surprise, they changed their mind and we got on the river again, we had to promise to hurry directly to Yangon to extend our visa and not venturing to the Andaman Sea.

We drove towards the Andaman Sea. On the way I failed with my self-made water skis and got almost bitten by a snake while collecting firewood. Three days later we reached the Andaman Sea and wanted to cross towards Yangon. after fighting the strong ocean currents for hours we had to pull in at a hicktown along the coast where the authorities already were waiting for us. After a village chief, a higher police major and a guy from military first caught us, then fed us, then questioned us for hours they decided to buy our boat for a fair price. I was enjoying an outdoor shower at the police station’s well while a mean looking bunch of immigration agents arrived to join the party. Then again serious questioning with the main topics “expired visas, illegal boat ownership and the new topic „suspicion of IS-terrorism“,- followed by hundreds of selfies with the authorities (in which the police major again had to change his casual longyi into a more formal police dress). since that very moment it is official that men of Myanmar don’t wear anything underneath… we spent a night under “hotel arrest” protected from two policemen waiting for their order from Yangon. again, a couple of more questions won’t hurt, they thought. as seen in American cop movies they separated us from each other (roughly 1.5 meters) and asked again the same questions. i decided to go for a ride with one of the police guys to buy some beer.

The next morning a Toyota Sienna parks in front of our hotel arrest, waiting for us to get in.

Click here to enjoy the Chindwin & Irriwaddy river gallery