I HAD BEEN ON THE RIVER for only a few hours when I encountered the raft—a basketball-court- size hulk of bamboo poles bound together with vines. I’d never seen anything like it.
Aboard it, five sun-leathered men gaped at me, equally confused at the sight of my ruby-red kayak. And no wonder: As far as I was aware, no one had ever attempted what I was now doing, a solo paddle down Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River without any oversight by the country’s all-controlling military. Together we stared at each other in silent wonder.
The men invited me aboard by holding out a pot of fried mung beans, and we passed lunch laughing at my crude attempts to speak Burmese. It was only when I buckled on my life jacket to leave that the cheroot-smoking captain agitatedly pointed downstream. I thought I knew what he was referring to: the Third Defile, a gorge with rapids, which might prove challenging to my eight-foot inflatable kayak. But he was trying to explain another threat, which despite my best efforts with a battered dictionary, I couldn’t identify.
Finally, the captain forged his index finger and thumb into a pistol, pointed at his heart, and theatrically flopped on the deck. “Tatmadaw?” I asked worriedly, the word for the nation’s notorious military, which has been accused of decades of human-rights violations, including machine gunning pro-democracy protesters and massacring rebellious minorities in the nation’s hinterlands.
“Tatmadaw! Tatmadaw! Tatmadaw!” The whole crew mimicked gunfire.
After almost six decades of military rule, a democratically elected government had assumed power in Myanmar the previous year. But the army still effectively controlled large portions of the Southeast Asian nation— including the northern region I was paddling through—as it battled an opposition force, the 10,000-man Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Perhaps a checkpoint lay ahead?
I unsealed a ziplock bag to show the men my permits. The dozen pages explained in Burmese that I had government permission for the unprecedented 200-mile voyage down the Irrawaddy, which runs 1,350 miles through the nation’s heartland, providing millions of Myanmar’s people with drinking water and food, and serving as a highway in a land where good roads are scarce. The river is so important that it’s often referred to as the “soul” of Myanmar.
Though my papers didn’t say this, I was paddling the Irrawaddy because I hoped it might soften my view of the country. I’d previously spent six months working in refugee camps just over the border, and I was in the middle of two months of reporting on the Kachin conflict and Rohingya genocide, the military’s systematic purge of a Muslim ethnic minority that has sent over 700,000 traumatized people fleeing to Bangladesh. It was heavy work that forced me to witness the worst that people and governments can do. But by paddling through the center of the country, away from most of the violence, I hoped I could meet citizens enjoying the so-called Myanmar miracle, the recent economic and civil advances—and peace—common in the south. Myanmar was more than its ugly side, and I wanted to experience that.
But as I paddled away, one of the raftsmen pretended to strafe me as a final warning. Why, I wondered, was I doing this again?
THIS CERTAINLY WAS not the trip I’d intended to take. The plan had been to meet up in Yangon, the nation’s largest city, with my friend Corey Pattison, who’d spent three years in the city as an analyst for the World Bank. Corey and I had long dreamed of kayaking every mile of the Irrawaddy, from its wellspring in Himalayan glaciers to the Bay of Bengal. Fighting and the government’s bureaucracy had forced us to curtail those lofty ambitions to a 420-mile stretch of the upper river. After months of planning, we set off from our homes in the U.S. for five days of overseas flights and bus rides, lugging two inflatable kayaks and all our gear. When we reached the river’s remote headwaters near the town of Myitkyina, Corey received an urgent call.
“My dad just died,” he told me after hanging up. “I have to go home.”
His one glimpse of the river was on its banks as we ate a lunch of deer meat napalmed with chili. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he sighed, looking at the glacial meltwater slaloming out of deforested mountains. “You know, it’s from my father that I got my love of adventure. He was so excited for me to do this.”
So while Corey raced to his father’s home in Arkansas, I decided to continue on. It was almost certain I’d never get another chance to do this trip. Besides, I figured, it was impossible to get lost on a river. Just point your boat downstream and paddle, right?
As I should have known, nothing in Myanmar is that simple. Getting permission from the government had been a slog through the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. Months earlier, Corey and I had reached out to the Myanmar government and received informal approval for the trip. But when we landed in Yangon, we learned that the permits lacked official signatures. So we flew 600 miles north to the river’s headwaters with the promise that the finalized permissions would be emailed “tomorrow.”
But the permits didn’t come “tomorrow.” And to make matters worse, Corey’s father died. After fighting intensified between the KIA and the army, I was forced to reroute 220 miles south to a new launch point. The only upside was that the drive would allow a few extra days for the permits to clear. It also gave me time to meet with representatives of the KIA so they could bless the journey, giving me added peace of mind. During our chat, held in the back of a Chinese restaurant that catered to jade smugglers, they bestowed their approval with a bemused chuckle. With jets regularly bombing Kachin villages and refugees fleeing over the border, the idea of a new Myanmar was laughable to them. But I had their consent.
When I finally reached the put-in, in a backwoods farming village, I still had only a promise that the permits would arrive that afternoon. The local police were understandably suspicious, so when evening arrived with no papers, I was warned to leave town. But an hour before I was to be put on a bus back to the capital, my whole journey scuttled, the permits—shockingly—came through.
STILL WORRIED THAT I might be told to abandon my trip, I sneaked down to the riverbank before dawn, lugging a waterproof duffel stuffed with 60 pounds of gear, including a rubber kayak, a four-piece paddle, and days of provisions. By headlamp, I inflated my boat and attached the duffel on top with two carabiners. Then I paddled out into darkness, navigating by the tug of the current and the Southern Cross staked into the horizon.
At daybreak, I found myself dwarfed by the mile-wide river, with no other vessel in sight. I was euphoric and terrified. The smooth waters, thatched-roof hamlets, and rolling jungle lulled away any sense of danger. That is, until my encounter with the raftsmen and the captain’s overdramatized execution. As I paddled south, his warnings reverberated in my mind, but, as it turned out, the whitewater at the Third Defile proved nothing more than a few standing waves—dangerous for a bamboo raft the size of a barge, but easily kayaked. As I continued farther, I met no soldiers or checkpoints, only friendly farmers who waved hoes at me from cornfields and children who jogged after me along the bank, laughing and waving.
The closest I came to losing my life that first day happened while I was trying to piss. In the afternoon, I pulled into a secluded inlet, stepped into the shallows to relieve myself, and plunged up to my waist in muck. My legs were entombed in the fetid sludge, and no matter how much I tried to pull free, I kept sinking, as if in quicksand. I threw my upper body atop my kayak to buoy myself, then assessed the situation. In the end, it took 20 exhausting minutes of shoveling with my paddle to clear the reeking mud from my legs.
Afterward, as I floated in the middle of the river to clean off, I berated myself, then laughed at the stupidity of it all—nearly done in by a bathroom break. While planning this trip, part of me had been searching for the intensity of that escape. And yet, after all of my reporting in refugee camps, hearing stories of murder and rape, and then being confronted with the death of Corey’s father, seeking danger seemed naive. Death never felt so, well, permanent.
At a teakwood temple, as I faded into sleep beside lines of monks curled up at the feet of a giant Buddha statue, my body still felt rocked by the river.
As dusk fell after 13 hours of paddling, I steered myself to the nearest beach. A crowd gathered, snapping photos of me with cellphones. Trying to avoid suspicion, I pressed my permits on them, repeating, “We need to show the police.” But they only paid attention to the instructions in Burmese that I sleep in a monastery if no guesthouse was available.
So I was led to a teakwood temple where I was feasted with four varieties of curry and rice. Afterward, as I faded into sleep beside lines of monks curled up at the feet of a giant Buddha statue haloed with fairy lights, my body still felt rocked by the river.
THE NEXT DAY, to dodge increasing boat traffic, I slipped into the river’s marshy back channels and spent three days paddling through tiny villages that rarely saw foreigners, where I was treated generously. In one hamlet, a farmer squired me around the cobbled streets and proudly declared, “Isn’t my village beautiful?” I had to agree.
Another afternoon, I met up with U Thin Myu, one of the last dolphin fishermen of the Irrawaddy. I’d reached out to him before setting off on my journey and now, in a quiet cove, he demonstrated how he cajoled wild dolphins into helping him fish, tapping out a special rhythm with a teak dowel on the hull of his wooden boat. Soon a pod of a dozen dolphins swam up. He knew them so well he had names for them. Following directions that Myu tapped out, one of the dolphins began driving splashing baitfish toward the boat, where the old man crouched with a throw net. But just as Myu was about to strike, a barge rumbled past, scaring the dolphin away. The duet continued to be stymied for another half-hour until a lull allowed Myu to cast his net atop the fish. The dolphin then plucked a few snacks from the mesh.
The coordinated fishing was astonishing but also heartbreaking to watch: There may be only 65 dolphins left in the increasingly polluted river, and a similar number of aging fishermen. Worst of all, Myu explained, were the illegal electroshock fishermen who copied his drumming to trick the dolphins into chasing fish toward them, then used car batteries to unleash a wave of electricity that killed dozens of fish—and also sometimes the dolphins. This duplicity, he explained, had damaged the trust between him and the dolphins, and sometimes his partners no longer came when he called.
My encounters with locals on this stretch of the river was the experience in Myanmar I had sought, one that had nothing to do with the massacres and refugees, revealing a place where people managed to lead good lives despite the long shadow of the dictatorship.
But on the evening of the third day, the river turned gray, choked with soda bottles, dead fish, and human waste, and I landed on the shores of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city. The dusty colonial trading post of “palm trees” and “tinkly temple bells” that Rudyard Kipling memorialized had been paved over with crumbling concrete high-rises warehousing more than a million people.
As I backpacked my duffel through the streets, I passed internet cafes and beer halls. It felt like I’d entered a different country, or maybe a different century. The nation’s pacified south is run by the democratic government, and that’s where most of the benefits of modernization have accrued.
While resting a day in Mandalay, I visited some monks, and our conversation was interrupted by the clerk at my hotel calling to inform me that the police were demanding to see my passport. I told him to give the officials my phone number and have them contact me directly—I was doing nothing illegal. I never heard from them. But when I returned to my room that night, I found my switchblade lying open on a table. I was sure I had left it closed. I stared at the naked edge, telling myself that the maid had probably opened it out of curiosity and then been unable to decipher the frame lock that snapped it back into place. Yet the tip was aimed directly at my pillow. Had the police opened my room and left me a message?
I stared at the weapon long into the night. Throughout my voyage, I’d been annoyed at the police who constantly harassed me and wary citizens who gave me the cold shoulder. Now, I realized, they were just trying to protect their backs. A lifetime of dreading the dictatorship’s displeasure had cultivated a healthy paranoia in them. I was feeling the fear that the whole country had suffered for two generations.
THE NEXT DAY, I fled Mandalay at dawn. But the worry that arose in me in the city didn’t recede. The towns I visited over the next three days seemed jittery, and instead of the genuine welcomes I’d received upstream, guesthouse owners price gouged me and insisted I leave at dawn, before the authorities took notice. The only cheer came from the rafters I met on the first day. They had been calling my cellphone most afternoons just to hear me laugh, so they would know I was OK.
On my last night, dusk caught me on a desolate stretch of the river, without a light for miles. I kayaked across waters so still they reflected the stars and it seemed like I was sliding over a nebula. For hours, I alternated lazy paddle strokes with staring at the constellations above. Meteors skidded across the sky. Already, I felt nostalgic for a trip that wasn’t over. Eventually, I leaned back and closed my eyes. The pulmonary rhythm of the Irrawaddy’s shallow waves felt familiar, and I soon dozed off. When I woke at dawn, shivering, the river had wafted me nearly a dozen miles, all the way to Bagan, my end-point. I paddled ashore and clambered out of the kayak.
That evening, I grabbed handholds of grass growing between bricks as I climbed an ancient temple in the city. At the peak, I stared out over 2,000 crumbling pagodas dotted across miles of scrub and the Irrawaddy S-curving through them. Though the Mongols had originally sacked Bagan, it was the river’s annual floods and shifting course that had obliterated four-fifths of its ruins. But while the river destroyed, it also created. Downstream from every eroding bank I’d kayaked past had lain a postcard-perfect beach, growing from the dust of upstream violence.
Atop the temple, a monk took a selfie in front of a fireball sun and then chanted about reincarnation, as his predecessors had centuries before. That day, Corey had emailed me that he had buried his father. After the funeral, he wrote, his dad’s friends had eased his heartache by telling him of their past canoe trips.
As sun smoldered out, for the first time since I set off on the Irrawaddy, I finally felt at peace.