November 2014 (it won’t have changed much).
“Did you see the body?”, my companion asked at our first stop. I’d seen a bloated water buffalo drift by but I’d missed the corpse and some our fellow passengers greeting it with a collective shudder and then a shrug.
As the powerful, slim boats move swiftly through the cool, brown water plastic bags, polystyrene food containers, beer cans, even human remains it seems, are quickly left behind, floating off into the distance. In the past already. Gone. The big, fast-moving river trusted to consume all that the locals throw into it.
Try not to fall in.
It’s been an aspiration of mine to travel on the Chindwin River ever since I stood on its bank when I went to Monywa, looking for blanket factories, in 2002. Back then no-one was willing to sell me a ticket to head in either direction on the river. More recently I’d set my heart on getting up to Homalin by plane and coming back down to Monywa by boat.
The sleepy Yangon office of the government-run tourist agency, Myanmar Travel and Tours, beside the lovely-again Mahabandoola Gardens was never the place to go for up to the minute travel advice. Ask about heading anywhere off the very beaten track and, though the people working there never intended to misinform, you were most likely given out of date information about where is now accessible to tourists and how a guide and permission from some or other office is essential if you want to go there.
The facts on the ground are often – but not always – very different. I like to go into MTT before a trip, find out what they believe I’m not allowed to do and then on my return pop in again to let them know how easy it was – or not – to do those things.
Every time I’ve asked about travelling on the Chindwin the information on offer has been particularly opaque. Maybe there is a boat from Homalin. Maybe you will be allowed to catch it. Maybe not. Maybe there is enough water in the river. Maybe not.
Eventually, given the time and the money to allow for hold-ups and the possibility of being forced to take a plane, it’s best just to give it a go. Find out for yourself. By the time I got the chance I’d heard stories of people managing to get on boats as far north as Hkamti so at the last minute we decided, despite MTT’s files saying that foreigners are not allowed beyond ‘downtown’ Hkamti, to try to start our river trip from there instead. Good decision.
There are at least four flights a week in and out of Hkamti, two from Yangon, all four via Mandalay. We took the overnight train up to always-wonderful Mandalay (so many people mis-judge Mandalay) and then after a day there (for the fantastic food) we flew (from the old airport inside the city) in a tube-like twin-prop eighteen-seater Beech 1600D, low over downtown Mandalay, followed the Ayerwaddy up as far as Katha, turned north-west to pass close to the massive (and as yet unvisited by me) Indawgi Lake and then over the vast orange environmental horror show, jade mine scar of Hpakant. This bit of Myanmar is missing. (MTT are right when they say you are not allowed to go there).
We see Hkamti on a big bend of the Chindwin, as it snakes between Sagaing and Nagaland close to both India and China, just before the plane banks sharply to our right and drops fast onto the pitted, dark tarmac airstrip just a mile out of town.
The old red fire engine that had pulled out to the side of the runway in anticipation of our crashing turns back towards the shade and we walk slowly in sunshine to the tiny turquoise terminal building.
Immigration are not prepared for our arrival. Our passport and visa details are written with a borrowed pen onto the back of a folded letter a man in a hat happened to have in his pocket. We wait a few moments for our bags to catch us up and share the only taxi in town into town. You could walk. It’s downhill.
Hkamti is isolated. And it feels it. There is very little traffic. No more than a few cars. Only a few more motorcycles. It’s all about the river, but even there, down below Strand Road at this time of year, there’s not much going on in the middle of the day. Tea shop time.
We check in at Oasis Guesthouse, which will do for 5000 Kyat.
We spend the afternoon walking on the sandy, stony, exposed-to-the-sun riverbed for a hot mile or so up to where we take a small ferry carrying motorcycles and people across to the village of Sin Day. Another – passenger only – ferry runs back from Sin Day to the centre of Hkamti. Both cost 500 Kyats.
The next day we would try to reach Nagaland. I already posted about that here.
Continued .. Part two of this story is here.