The Irrawaddy River is often called the “Soul of Myanmar” because it runs the length of the country, providing irrigation and drinking water for millions, as well as offering a major highway in a land with few roads. I set out to kayak several hundred miles of the Irrawaddy River to report on how Myanmar is transforming as globalization breaches the once isolated country.
The river was filled with evidence of how the outside world was transforming Myanmar: huge barges carried oceanic shipping containers packed with foreign goods into the remote interior; illegal goldmines dotted the Irrawaddy’s banks, as miners dug for the mineral to ship to China; and even subsistence fishermen in the remotest villages had cell phones. But as much as Myanmar seemed to be rushing into the present, I was surprised at how inescapable its past was: I was awed by the ancient temple city of Bagan rising above the river’s banks and grieved by stories from people about the hardships of living under the former military dictatorship. Paddling alone at dawn and dusk, as mists steamed off the water and bats boomeranged overhead, I felt like I was seeing the river as the British had when they sailed gunboats up it to fell the last Burmese empire.
Myanmar was about to step into the future, but it hadn’t fully escaped its past.