Monday, April 13, 2009

The Daring Attempt to Cross the Irrawaddy

The Irrawaddy is the main river of Myanmar. A great deal of commerce flows up and down the river, usually in relatively small boats. In the dry season, the river gets very shallow, making navigation difficult. Around Yangon, however, it's deep enough for sea-going vessels to dock. There's a regular ferry that traverses the river. There's honestly not too much to see on the other side, but it's worth a look if only to travel to the pottery village of Twante. Although I planned to return to Twante on this trip, there simply wasn't enough time.

I like staying in backpacker guest houses. I frequently meet interesting travelers and occasionally team up for short adventures. Having breakfast one morning, I met Alistair, from England, and Yvonne, from China. Both were quite familiar with Southern China and were happy to give me tips on where to go and what to do. I was able to offer suggestions with regard to Myanmar; I recommended Twante. On my last day in Myanmar, I arranged to meet Alistair, Yvonne and her companion for a sunrise cruise across the river (which takes about twenty minutes). The three of them would then continue on to Twante village by bus and I would return to Yangon to catch an afternoon flight to Kunming, China.

I was up well before dawn and walked to the pier while they showed up a few minutes later by cab. Five years earlier, I had to pay a premium to take the ferry across the river, but it was only a dollar.

As we approached the gate leading to the ferry dock (an old barge), the young man there waved us away; we needed special permission to cross. “So? Give us special permission.” It was simply a matter of showing a passport to an official there, getting a slip of paper, and ten minutes later you were on your way.

The gatekeeper explained that the document could be obtained from somewhere around the nearby Shule Pagoda. We were all keen to see the sunrise from the river so we were in a bit of a rush. I noticed numerous small boats crossing the river from a nearby landing. Instead of the official ferry, perhaps we could hire a boat?

We walked over to the small boat terminal, which is basically a concrete ramp running into the river, and approached a boatman waiting there. He shook his head and pointed to the big ferry boat terminal. We tried every pilot there, but none would take us across. It seems that foreigners are not allowed to use the small craft and there was no way they were going to let us cross with them. I assume that they'd be turned in to local officials if they dared transgress the rule.

I don't know why they don't allow foreigners to cross the river without special permission. The paranoid Myanmar government has lots of travel restrictions in place and this is just one of them. Unlike most countries in the area, the locals tend to follow the law rather rigidly; undoubtedly for their own good.

We did manage to see the sunrise, but from the docks.

At a loss, we piled into a taxi and dashed off to the pagoda. I ran to the first touristic place I saw and asked them where we could get permission to cross the river. The proprietor had no idea. The taxi driver took us to the police station just up the street from the pagoda. Surely they would help us, right?

Walking into the police station was slightly surreal. The the policemen fast asleep at their desks. Now, this is not at all what you'd think; they were not snoozing in their chairs with their heads folded in the arms. These policemen were laying on top of their desks, beneath blankets, still wearing their uniforms and boots. We weren't sure if they were on call all night or simply lived at the police station for days at a time before returning home. Fortunately, one of the men were up and on duty to help us … or not as it turned out.

We tried to explain that we were looking for the place to get permission to cross the river. Speaking no English, the officer struggled to understand us. One of the girls noticed that there was a second police station right beside the first. We're not sure how that worked, but the second police office seemed to be the official station. It even had a sign beside the door: “How can I help you?”

The fellow there was more helpful, but again could speak no English. He pulled out a city map and we pantomimed our desires. He was baffled. I was trying to figure out some way to get him to come to the ferry terminal with us. As we talked, policemen toting antique-looking rifles were coming and going. If I could get an armed police escort to cross the river with us, who would stop us?

Alister was both frustrated and amused by the whole affair. With his translation book and passport, he did his best to get the officer to understand that we needed some sort of document to give to the ferry terminal guy so we could cross the river. I suppose the cop had no idea we needed such a thing and was simply baffled by our request.

Yvonne disappeared for several minutes while we tried, in vain, to explain our situation. She returned with a man who seemed to understand English a bit better, but we were unable to sort out the official river crossing requirements. Yvonne dashed off again and soon produced a professional looking young woman who spoke excellent English. I asked how she found her. Yvonne, being brilliant, just stood on the sidewalk and looked for someone on the way to work who was well dressed and who probably worked at a hotel. It took her no time to
find an excellent candidate!

After much three-way discussion, we came to the conclusion that the office that creates the official travel documents was closed on Sunday morning. Our trip across the river was not to be. By now we were beyond disheartened and were just happy to have reached a conclusion to the whole mess – even though it meant we could not traverse the river. That left only one priority, coffee for Alister and me, tea for the women.

It turned out that the most popular coffee place in the city didn't open until 10AM. We met the owner, a Frenchman, and he agreed to let us relax on the terrace. He later served us some excellent coffee and tea.

I learned that Alister was quite the seasoned traveler and had even written a few travel books. Check out his blog here .For more Yangon photos, click here.

1 comment:

Danni said...

Actually it was really unforgettable experience for me in Myanmar.Nice to meet you,Louis.