November 2014 (things might have changed. Some of the area covered here was affected by the flooding of July 2015).
We left Homalin in the dark at 4am. Destination Mawleik which – to my surprise (this is a beyond Lonely Planet trip) – turns out to have a fantastic collection of old British built administrative buildings, a hospital from 1916 and loads of old colonial style houses, many in wood, many abandoned – and a golf course.
Not just dark but densely foggy too. And cold. The boat grounded several times, dragging itself across the gravel in the shallows. A smaller boat emerged from the fog unseen until the last minute and a collision at speed was avoided by a couple of feet.
The fog did not lift until well after sunrise. Every so often the engine quietened and we slid silently into the high mud bank where small groups of people had gathered to wait for us. The driver must have known they were there because he could not see them.
Once the sun finally won its battle with the fog it was clear it was going to be a glorious day. The river was much busier now. Countless passenger and cargo boats carrying all sorts of raw materials, construction equipment, vehicles, cut trees, tree bark, petrol and more chickens all still using the river as the ‘trunk road’.
The real roads covering the same ground are almost non-existent (though work – as everywhere in this country – is ongoing to upgrade them). A fellow passenger I spoke with was a petrol merchant. He told me by how much the price of a barrel of petrol went up on each step of its journey away from source. And how much he was making out of that. Plenty then. A lot less a year and a bit later.
We saw, a couple of times, a colonial era style luxury cruise boat carrying just a dozen well-to-do tourists, the only foreigners we saw in ten days apart from a mad German cyclist. No matter how far off the beaten track you get there is always one of them.
When we stopped for lunch at a busy riverside village our departure was delayed as we waited for a bunch of policemen and the dozen prisoners they were escorting to Kalewa which has a prison. The riverbank was steep. It was quite tricky for the prisoners to get on to the boat, coming down in crocodile file because their ankles were cuffed and attached to the man or woman in front and behind, not with chains, but with solid bars. They remained attached to each other in that way once on the boat got moving. A sinking that day would have been extra unfortunate. But it did at least mean their guards were free to sit on the roof and drink beer.
By the time we reached Mawleik it was 3pm and roasting hot. We stumbled across one of those amazing meals where you least expect it at the top of the jetty and then stumbled along to the only foreigner licensed guesthouse in town. It was reasonable, even though it only had brown river water for us to wash in.
The following day we discovered Mawleik to be a gem of a place. I’m writinh about it separately. [LINK to come]
It’s only three hours from Mawleik to Kalewa. We were delayed in departing waiting for some soldiers to buy their lunch. A handsome civilian was doing his laundry on the jetty steps. We pulled out into the middle of the river and then swung back to the steps. We had left a soldier behind.
Much of village and town life clearly depends on the Chindwin river (even though it’s increasingly mercury-polluted by the gold mining) for local small-boat transportation, for fish to eat, for washing clothes and bodies and for the transportation of anything and everything.
The poverty is obvious and yet the mood of people who must go down to the river each evening to wash communally does not seem downbeat. Food along the way is cheap and often very good. Almost everyone was friendly. There are lots of boats.
Not many tourists are yet coming this way. It’s quite hard work unless you’re on the luxury boat, and that only goes as far up as Homalin.
But it’s a brilliant trip. Interesting, beautiful, inspiring and rewarding. Even if the poverty is a bit depressing.
We ended our journey in Kalewa because the onward journey to Monywa is mostly at night. At least at this time of year.
There is a great restaurant (on the left as you walk a few hundred metres into town from the jetty) and the first signs of a coming new bridge, the first that will cross the river between Hkamti and Monywa.
There was no foreigner licensed accommodation in Kalewa. We headed on to Kalaymyo by horrible three-wheel to meet a friend. (If you ever need a friend in Kalaymyo I have a good one.)
I flew back to Yangon. Getting the bus into town from the airport (there is no need to take a taxi) I had the good fortune to meet two of the MTT women at the bus stop. They were very interested and delighted to hear all about my trip to the places they had told me I was not allowed to go.
This is the fourth post covering a ten day trip on the Chindwin River in November 2014. We travelled down the river by boat stopping off at a couple of small places and a larger town along the way. The third post got us as far as Homalin. Here are the links.
We were lucky enough to be able to get a bus from Hta Man Thi up to Lay Shee in mountainous Naga ‘state’. It’s 42 miles on a road under destruction-construction that takes three hours climbing to over 5000 feet. The Naga people live in Myanmar and India and used to be renowned head hunters. 16,000 of them fought in the trenches in France during WW1. That trip is covered in a separate post : Up to Nagaland.