Myanmar - January 2016
Their goal was an ambitious one-way kayaking journey that charts a course from the most remote corner of the Himalaya, 1200 miles south into Myanmar through stretches of river never seen before by the outside world. The expedition begins in a zone only recently opened to outsiders near Myanmar's northern border with Tibet. Here the team targets a first kayak descent of the Upper Maykha River, the highest headstream of the legendary Irrawaddy.
Chris Korbulic and I are lucky. At least that’s what I think. Our job is to travel the world in search of a great paddling adventure. And since there are relatively few places on the planet where water does not flow, we can dream big. But more than that, Chris and I are lucky that we have been able to put up with each other for this long. Paddling together 9 years, we have experienced some of the most awesome and stressful situations I can imagine. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. I mean can you imagine spending months with someone you often don’t share more than a few dozen words with per day? Don’t get me wrong, not every day is like that, but more often than not we live and work together in a sort of comfortable silence, a shared feeling that if we are not on exactly the same page we are no more than a few paragraphs apart. But our most recent kayaking mission to Myanmar would put our partnership to the ultimate test: failure.
Story by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic
What were we thinking?
“What the *!&% were you thinking…?” I growl at Chris. He tries to put a little distance between the two of us while sorting out his gear for the nightmare hike ahead. “Did you think we were going to just sneak downstream and hope that no one noticed a couple of white guys in kayaks for the next 1000 miles?” Still no answer, but I can tell at least now I’m getting under his skin. At this moment I need a response from him worse than we needed a miracle to continue downstream. His silence is punitive: he’s in control and I’m not. At last he fires back “what do you want me to say when you keep telling me how shitty my planning was.” “Well it was shitty wasn’t it,” I say now laughing more than anything. Finally my pathetic little temper tantrum is braking. I just needed him to say something, anything really. I know the score. It’s ridiculous to blame this on Chris, but who else can I yell at? Certainly not the Special Police. Those guys are sketchy.
Our expedition to Myanmar started like any other with Chris Korbulic and I weighing the possibilities. My idea was a high-bred kayak/canyoneering mission on Maui. His was to make a first descent on the most northern river in Myanmar. Normally I’m pretty stubborn about my ideas but his was obviously more interesting, more exotic. And in many ways Northern Myanmar is as exotic as it gets: roadless, deadly snakes, and a civil war all tucked into the most remote corner of the Himalayas.
“Wait a minute… civil war?” I asked Chris. “Yeah the longest ongoing civil conflict on earth” Chris confidently stated having obviously done a bit more homework than me. “But don’t worry, all the fighting seems to be pretty far away from the river corridor” pointing to the right and left of the river in question. The river in question was in fact the principle tributary of the Irrawaddy. I follow the Irrawaddy south with my eyes. The river bisects and in many ways defines the country running a thousand miles south to the main city of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) and the Andaman Sea. Chris Joked that we could just take out at the airport in Yangon. He was joking, but why not? Why not go source to sea, see the whole country, run the table? Like I said, Chris and I are usually on the same page, and the mission was on.
Putao, Kachin - Northern Myanmar
We needed to show a permit just to get off the plane in Myanmar’s most northern town, and we are quickly met by our assigned guide Danai to handle those formalities. “Most of Kachin province is restricted, but Putao voted to stay open to tourism,” Danai says with pride. With over a half century of civil war fueled by Jade smuggling in the west and Heroin smuggling in the east, it’s easy to understand why the government is restricting foreign travel in the area. When we arrive at the guest house the “Boss” named Sonwin explains that our permit is intended for trekking so we could go up the river as high as we wanted, “But please don’t go downstream” he added. When I asked him why, he looked from side to side as if to see if anyone was watching and then whispered “KIA”. I was confused, but we had bigger issues. The domestic airlines (all of them) refused to transport our kayaks anywhere by air from the main city of Yangon, so we requested the boats be sent by truck and waited. Luckily the “Boss” is a kind man and allows us to pitch our tent to save some money.
In the morning, we drink tea at the fish market. There are dozen varieties of fish we have never seen before, all caught in the nearby rivers that are still free-flowing/undammed to the sea. Apparently westerners are in short supply because the locals take turns sitting down with us to practice their English. Chris tries to get a handle on our permission, or lack thereof, and inevitably starts probing for information. Reactions to his questions about the Kachin Rebels vary from distrust to outright support for the state’s maligned independence army, but everyone agrees that they are fighting the Burmese army and it is impossible to know exactly where.
120 pounds of gear
I’m not going to tell you how much it cost to send our boats by truck from Yangon to Putao. Let’s just say it was more expensive than buying 2 brand new boats. But that’s not a choice; the whole mission depends on our kayaks. So when they finally show up, albeit a week late, we are relieved. So relieved that I don’t even mind the 18-hour, back-jarring truck ride to the end of the road. I am so excited that I barely notice the first two 10-hour days that follow hiking with 120 pounds of gear on my back.
Okay, so that last part is only half true. We are carrying an absurd amount of weight, but it’s the opposite of barely noticeable. “Grueling” and “painful” are more apt descriptions. And this first 20 miles, with a 4,000-foot climb and 3,000-foot down-climb to the first crossing of the upper Irrawaddy, called the Maykha river, is a painful warm-up. Our goal is to hike upstream to the Maykha’s headwaters where the river has never been paddled before.
It’s the toughest route in Myanmar “and oh by the way… watch out for snakes,” says Danai off-handedly as we are about to begin day three.
Right. Snakes. It’s our guides first time here too and the locals reminded him to warn us, but we already knew the story. In 2001 Joseph Slowinski, a famous herpetologist, died from a snake bite on this same trail. I have convinced myself that because we are here in the coldest month of the year, snakes are surely far less active. Still, I have already removed my first leech, and I could easily stumble into anything given how exhausted I am, and with the boat hovering over my head obscuring all but the step right in front of me.
The good news is we were able to drop heavy supplies for the downstream food cash. The bad news is my knee is sending me painful messages under the reduced but still 90 pound load. I try walking slow. I try looking for snakes to forget about my knee. But this trail is Burmese knee torture, a relentless series of ups and downs etched in a vertical wall of jungle. Seven miles into day three, I slip off a log crossing a ravine. Only the porters in front and behind keep me from falling out of site. Eight and a half miles in, my knee seizes, and I pitch my boat screaming in pain. We still have over fifty miles of this crap to go and I can barely walk.
A team effort
By the end of day three, I am destroyed. I’m afraid that a decade and a half of this kind of masochistic expeditioning has finally caught up with me. I start popping Ibuprofen and muscle relaxants in handfuls of trail mix. Walking is a sequence of ache, scream, lock, repeat. I’m ashamed to say it but I pray. It’s not the prayer that bothers me. It’s the timing. Religion by necessity. But I’m running out of options.
The next day starts like the last: Walk slow, think of anything else, ignore the dull pain, bear the shooting pain, and fold to the ground when it’s too much. But today the whole scenario plays out in the first two and a half miles with six and a half to go. I stumble down to a ravine where Chris, Danai, and another porter, Chenglay, are waiting. I tell them it’s no good. I can’t carry on.
Chris is a mutant hiker. His feet are almost twice the width of mine, and every step he takes seems to be worth twice as much. It’s both frustrating and motivating to follow him. And when I think my trip is over, he talks me through it. He gives the kind of advice you get from a friend, which is no advice at all. He simply said, “Let’s finish this together.” It sounds like kind of a sappy moment now, and I guess it was sappy. It felt so good to hear him say that… that we are in this together. That this is our mission.
As if the decision was made, Danai and Chenglay want to grab my pack and boat, and continue ahead. Chris and I aren’t alone. Including Danai and Chenglay there 5 other porters, and they all seem to want us finish the trek too. “The Porters respect you guys” Danai says. “You are the first foreigners they’ve seen that want to carry their own gear.” I’m not sure if he’s telling the truth or stroking my ego, but I’ll take the compliment. I don’t know what’s wrong with my knee, but I need help to go any further today.
85 miles up
Maybe it’s the heavy doses of meds, the impromptu prayer, or dumb luck, but each day my knee seems to improve. The porters keep our loads light by keeping their loads heavy. Our 70-pound burden over the final few days is a far cry from the absurdity of the first few days, but still we are exhausted. Luckily, the weather is perfect for this kind of suffering: rainy and cold. Above us the snow line is coming down the mountain, laying a thick blanket of white over the jungle above.
Each night we stumble into a different village. Kids assemble to check out the new arrivals. Men convene to sort out our accommodations. Women arrive with hot tea and popcorn. Sometimes we stay in an extra hut. Sometimes we are in the school. No matter: it’s warm and dry inside, and the only other things we need are food and sleep.
On day ten, the mountains soar into pure ice and snow at the most northern village in Myanmar: a Tibetan place called Dahundan. It’s the Gateway to the high peaks of Southeast Asia, where very few climbers have been before. The Maykha is small here in the middle of winter. And I feel like I can’t carry my load another inch. That night, we share a house with a Tibetan family that consists of three generations of ladies, who take turns setting our group of nine up for the evening around a fire pit that will keep us warm and fed for the night. Shortwave radios are the phones of a region with no cell towers, and they squawk into the night as porters and villagers alike chat with anyone listening. I learned only a few words of Burmese, so I can only guess as to what all the talk was about. The Tibetan ladies serve rice wine, and everyone is singing and laughing when delicious deep sleep takes over.
On day eleven, we put empty boats on our backs and hiked another three miles to where a side stream threatens to take out too much water. 85 miles up and 3 weeks after arriving in Myanmar, we put our boats on a stream that feeds a stream that feeds a river that forms the Irrawaddy.
Kayaking is a spectator sport
We move slowly at first, picking our way through the steep boulder strewn river. Each scout requiring an entrance and exit of the kayak, with stiff sore legs. But that is the perfect therapy: lean, twist, bend, repeat. A few hours in, our river sense takes over and we descend a particularly steep section by boat scout (without getting out). Towards the end, a group of Children run down the bank accompanying us under prayer flags and back into Dahundan, where roughly 50 villagers are waiting for us with smart phones at the ready to capture the moment. That night in Duhundan the radio is nonstop chatter.
Downstream of Dahundan, monsoon floods have crowded the constricted channel with two- and three-story boulders. Where the water is forced through and under the boulders, we portage. Carrying the 90-poung gear-laden kayaks over a jumble of icy slick boulders is only slightly safer than the unrunnable river. Portaging only a few hundred yards takes a couple of hours. Past the portage, we see the conspicuous bamboo bridge of the next village and another large group of spectators who had waited all day to see the kayaks in action. The scenario plays itself out over again and again, with each village alerted by radio that we are on the way.
It’s an amazing event that seems to grow in popularity. There were rumors that a Buddhist monk had already descended the river from Dahundan, standup paddling on a homemade bamboo board. On day four, we spot a bamboo board along the bank and take it for a quick paddle. It seems impossibly heavy to portage, but maybe the monk just ran everything? Maybe we’d have to call this a first kayak descent because the river had already been done on a SUP?
You could be shot
By the time we reach Panamdin on day seven of the river stage, I was in love with the river. Crystal-clear water, beaches, a serene jungle canyon, and the promise of the biggest whitewater downstream made it hard not to just keep paddling and ignore the fact that our official permission ended here. Still, I was hopeful we could work something out with local authorities. When Danai shows up with local officials, the answer is clear. He keeps his head down as he approaches and seems unwilling or unable to make eye contact. He stops short as two others with him deliver the news. Unlike the “Boss” back in Putao, they don’t hesitate to say that the KIA is absolutely fighting the Army downstream. “You could be shot or detained,” the more senior fellow says bluntly. We knew that it was a possibility that permission would not be given. Still, I don’t think Chris or I ever thought that it would happen to us.
We’re both mad, and Chris asks curtly if we would be arrested for continuing downstream. They seem confused by this question. “You could be shot” is the reply, as if we hadn’t heard him the first time. The discussion went on a bit longer, even though we knew there was no point. A few days before while camping on the river, Chris and I had agreed to continue downstream no matter what: with or without permission. But to stick to that commitment now would be selfish and dangerous, if not impossible. We know Danai and even our porters could be blacklisted or even jailed for their involvement with us were we to intentionally violate our permit. There is really no decision to make.
That’s when I decided it must be Chris’s fault. He arranged the logistics. He was the one who said it would work out. He was the one who set us up for this debacle. It’s amazing how, in the heat of the moment, you can be so certain of everything, when in reality there is no clear picture. No map to show us where we would be shot at or detained. No document that defined prison time for entering restricted areas. And in reality, there was no one to blame but ourselves for what we were about to do: hike 20 miles, 3,000 feet up, and 4,000 feet down back to where we had started three weeks earlier. But “blame” is the wrong word. “Blame” is what would have been passed around for foolishly heading downstream. And as the sound of the Maykha fades behind us on the hike-out, so too does the desire to make a bad decision.
Down, not out
Four days later, we are back in Putao. In the beginning, our intention had been to make a descent of the most northern river in Myanmar. Then we had decided to go source to sea on the Irrawaddy. Since the Irrawaddy didn’t “officially” start until 200 miles below where we hiked out, near a city we could travel to without permission, we convinced ourselves the mission was still very much on. We may have been down, but we were not out.
We try briefly to get permission to paddle the river draining south from Putao, another tributary to the Irrawaddy called the Malika, but it is the same scenario: the KIA is there, no permission is possible. In fact the last trip on any river draining out of the mountains into southern Kachin (David Allardice, et al), was in 2007, when there was still a recognized cease fire between the Government and the KIA. “Even on that trip,” said trip leader Patrick O’Keeffe, “we were shot at by the KIA and detained by the Army.”
In 2011 when the military started to seize land for mega-infrastructure projects like the first dam on the Irrawaddy, the KIA protested. In response the military captured and executed a few KIA soldiers to make a point. And that is when the cease fire crumbled and fighting began anew. The good news is that the mega-dam project came to a halt. The bad news is that thousands have died in renewed fighting with up to 100,000 forced into refugee camps brutally controlled by a military implicated in major nefarious activities, including the heroine trade and forced labor in the region’s world-renowned jade mines. Incidentally, these mines produce up to 30 billion dollars a year, most of which is smuggled out of the country tax-free.
We put the kayaks on a truck and fly to Myitkyina, Kachin’s capitol, where we need no permission to get off the plane. Now 200 miles downstream from where we left the Maykha, the river in front of us is a half-mile wide and now officially called the Irrawaddy River. A week later, we are still waiting for our kayaks. We are five and a half weeks and counting into the mission, still 800 miles from our goal, and going nowhere at a record pace. We can’t wait indefinitely for the kayaks to arrive. The hotel bill alone is going to put us out of business and we’re otherwise going insane with the wait.
I have an epiphany. “We don’t need kayaks.” And before I can say anything more, Chris finishes my thought; “Let’s by a boat.” There are plenty of local boats on the river at this point and frankly they are much better suited for the 800 miles of the Irrawaddy River ahead. We just need to find one in our price range: dirt cheap.
Six weeks after leaving California, we enter the Irrawaddy River for the first time. Our vessel is a well-used wooden skiff. I was skeptical when the deal included 2 bailing buckets, but the leaks are manageable so far. Our wooden paddles are saturated and heavy, but gloriously long and we stand while paddling downstream. At that moment, I was sure that serendipity had intervened and our failure upstream was meant to be. When we became fatigued, we sat and took in the river over a snack. We are the only boat on the river without a motor. When other boats passed, no one seemed to pay any attention. It’s amazing to feel anonymous and to be able to hear everything: The loud chug of small “pom-pom” boats; the deep roar of a diesel transport; the birds that flood the river as the motors faded into the distance. On-shore, families gather around a dinner fire at sunset. We stay in the current and lay out an easy dinner of canned fish and crunchy ramen.
I’ve never experienced anything like this: our first night on the river in a local canoe. We take shifts steering our drift through strong currents, downed trees, and even some rapids that feel like class V by moonlight. When the moon sets at 3:30 am, the world goes pitch-black. A headlamp only illuminates a thick cloud of mist right in front of my face. After frantically paddling around a few more trees, we call it off. We’ve covered 40 miles without a single paddle stroke. In our boat, 80 miles downstream of Myitkyina, the world is sublime and there is nothing that stands between us and the ocean but a long, glorious paddle down the Irrawaddy River.
At 8:00 the next morning, we awaken from that dream to the sound of women laughing. Apparently the site of two white guys paddling a canoe is pretty funny. “That’s not good” Chris said, as the boat loops back to take another look. When we wave, they wave. They seem satisfied
and head back in the same direction. Chris reminds me that we are about to pass a village rumored to be near a KIA base. As if on cue, a large diesel boat is coming straight at us. They are yelling to stop and broadside our tiny boat when they forget to stop themselves. Five men identifying themselves as immigration, police, and army yank us out of our boat and back into reality. Fifteen minutes later, we are on a diesel transport heading back to Myitkyina with our poor canoe unceremoniously hauled out of the water and up on deck for all to see. The turn of events is abrupt and dizzying.
Back in town a particularly sinister and nervous member of the so-called “special police” is waiting for us on shore with the family that sold us the boat. They reluctantly shake my hand, looking both scared and angry at the same time. “Yeah, yeah, special police” the guy says, and then makes a few harsh sounding and indiscernible orders to the family, ushering us into a tuk-tuk (3 wheeled taxi) at the same time. We are back at the hotel a few minutes later. There, the manager and his family are questioned. I feel guilty. Everyone lies: No one knew what we were doing, everyone told us not to do it. I don’t blame them. The name “special police” implies Gestapo-esque tactics, and this guy is visibly pissed off, with sweat pouring down his face even though it’s night and the weather is cool. It almost seems like he’s hopped up on something. When he rips his jacket off, he exposes the 9mm pistol like a threat. It’s a sinister moment. I can’t wait for him to leave. Finally he does, and everyone in the hotel lobby takes a deep breath. Luckily, we don’t see him again.
We are told not to leave the hotel. Three days later, we are called into immigration where we are ordered to catch the earliest available flight to Yangon: Do not go source to sea, do not go halfway, do not pass go, go directly to Yangon, expedition over, you lose.
Would we have even tried knowing that it would end like this? It’s a rhetorical question. But I do believe that in failure, we learned so much more in Myanmar than we have learned through successful missions in other places. The situation in Northern Myanmar is dire for so many people and one that I was completely oblivious to prior to this mission. Today there is real hope for the future, but also threat of the situation only getting worse.