For a close-up of life at the river’s edge, get out of the city and explore the Ayeyarwady Delta’s river system by boat.
A dismal feeling had plagued me for some days. Having grown up in a small village in Switzerland, the snowcapped mountains never too far away, I was yearning to escape Yangon in search of something green. The laid-back city of Pathein, at the edge of the Ayeyarwady Delta on the mighty Pathein River, 190 kilometres (118 miles) west of Yangon, seemed like the perfect weekend escape: No need to take a plane – just a short four-hour hop on a bus from the city.
The night before I headed to the delta, a contact advised me to get in touch with his friend John when I arrived in Pathein. While I get my morning caffeine fix at the busy Go-9 Coffee, a favourite with locals who gather in the morning to drink steaming cups of laphet yay, or in the evening for a hearty portion of rice and eggs over an American movie, I dig around for the scrap of paper with John’s number on it. Fifteen minutes later a friendly, well-fed man with chubby cheeks and a gentle demeanor halts pulls up on his motorbike outside Go-9. Over tea I learn that John is an English teacher. “I was always a complete English buff.” he says.
Despite his fascination with the English language, John doesn’t see his future in teaching, and hopes instead to become a well-known tour operator. Given the idea by a British tourist, John first started organising boat trips around the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2007. As contact with foreigners raised the suspicions of Military Intelligence spies, however, it was not until 2011 that he started running tours on a regular basis. John invites me to take a tour with him the next day, which seemed like a good alternative to the list of historically significant pagodas that my guide book wanted me to visit. “Be ready at 7am, I’ll pick you up in front of your hotel,” he said.
The K30,000 tour was worth the money even before we went near the water. As we passed Pathein’s beautiful colonial wooded houses on John’s motorbike, we came across craftsmen sitting in front of their workshops, surrounded by the fruits of their labour: colorful parasols (Pathein htee) made from bamboo and finely painted cotton sheets. Leaving the village we passed through vast yellow paddy fields, where farmers were harvesting their rice. The fields were dotted with large htanaung trees, which one might expect to see more commonly in the African savannah than in a tropical delta. Their sprawling branches provided shade for oxen loitering in the fields. The sun was still low in the sky, and the mild temperature made for a pleasant one-hour ride through the countryside.
In the sleepy village of A Su Gyi, along a tributary of the Pathein River, our boatman Ko Ye Htway – a tall, slim man with a shy smile and a hunger for betelnut – was waiting us at the jetty. His long-tail four-person boat wasn’t much more than a few planks of wood and some nails, skillfully crafted together and painted in pastel green. We sat on colourful rattan mats on the floor under a canopy. Not too comfortable, but with an extra dose of Indiana Jones-like authenticity.
Ko Ye Htway starts the manual motor and puts the propeller into the water. With the monotonic sound of the motor in our ears and the wind on our face, we drive off, the brown water splitting in front of us. I get lost in the pleasant monotony of cloudy blue sky, lush tropical vegetation and the serenity of the river. The edges of the river are thick with dense nipa palms growing out of the water. The only palm adapted to the mangrove biome of this region, the nipa’s leaves can extend up to 9 metres, and are used by local people in the winter season to make the thatched roofs of their homes. The houses, bridges and piers we pass are all fashioned from materials the surrounding environment provides; nipa, bamboo, mangroves and eucalyptus. Here, culture goes hand in hand with nature to this day. Except for a few birds, our boat is the only moving thing on the river. I lean on the sidewall, one hand in the water, daydreaming.
Our first stop is Maunge Tee, a short straight stretch of paved road, used only by bicycles as there is no road through the village. It leads from the jetty to a pagoda on the other side, where some boys play with kites. There is a sense of order and cleanliness in the village. A red script on the pavement reads in Myanmar, “Don’t spit the betel on the street”. I try to remember if I’ve ever seen such a sign in Yangon.
On our way to the pagoda we pass a Kathein robe-offering ceremony. A group of musicians with drums, cymbals and flutes, amplified by an enormous cone carried on a wooden chariot, is followed by women with flowers and young men in women’s clothes. It is a charming contrast to the calm of the river. As the parade encircles the large golden stupa, John begins one of his excessive and winding elaborations on local history and customs. My attention soon wanders back on the loud, colourful festivities going on around us.
Around 10:30am we are back on our boat, and Htway guides us to smaller, windier tributaries of the Pathein River. Mangrove roots sprout out of sandy swamps along the river’s edge, reminding me of the Mississippi. I ask John if there are any crocodiles in this region. He laughs and assures me that he has never spotted a crocodile here, unlike the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary further south, which every year sees deaths resulting from attacks by the 4-metre monsters that reside in the mangroves.
Our next stop is Tha Yet Kwin Yae Kyaw Gyi village in Kangyidaunt township, a labyrinth-like place in the shade of lush, tropical gardens filled with coconut palms, papaya trees and betel palms. Most of the people here work in the rice paddies surrounding the village. “This is an NLD village,” John tells me, as we pass the local party office – a large bamboo house on stilts. “It’s known for being the birthplace of U Tin Oo, the former president and chairman of the NLD.” After being invited inside for tea leaf salad by some friendly locals, John takes me to the village monastery, which lies within a compound of several colonial buildings dating from the 1930s. Opposite are several Buddha statues, housed in a corrugated iron structure. The smallest statue, no more than 30 centimetres high, is the pride of the village. In 1988, Christian Karens allegedly raided the village, and the bronze statue was stolen – supposedly to produce bullets. Not too long ago it found its way back to the village, to the enormous joy of residents.
As we jump back on the boat and head back to A Su Gyi, I fall into a content sleep. I wished our journey through the Ayeyarwady Delta could have continued for several more hours, just watching the villages pass by and the mighty river flowing towards the not so distant ocean. But John has no time to waste – another student was waiting for him in Pathein to practice his English that afternoon.
IF YOU GO
There are regular buses from Yangon to Pathein departing from Hlaing Tharyar bus terminal. The journey takes around four hours and the bus stops in the middle of Pathein, close to many hotels and restaurants. John (09-422530779 or [email protected]) can arrange half-day boat trips on the Shanywar River for K30,000 for one person or K40,000 for two.