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Forward, stop, back: River rafting in northern Myanmar

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Rafting on the Namlang River (photo by Htien Linn)

Rafting on the Namlang River (photo by Htein Linn)

At dawn in late January, the Lisu village of Mulashidi in northern Kachin State offers a tableau most visitors would not expect to see in Myanmar: villagers wrapped in heavy coats, hats and scarves; women sitting in huddles, warming their hands around small fires; and healthy, thick-furred dogs trotting purposefully along the road as if they have important appointments to keep.

The temperature is about 3 degrees Celsius, and the weather looks even colder to the west, north and east, where white-capped mountains lend a sense of drama to the jagged horizon. The nearest peaks are more than 50 miles away, but it’s the first time I’ve seen snow in Myanmar, which is known more for its tropical climate than for icicles and winter chills.

Dawn in Mulashidi

Dawn in Mulashidi

It is through this stunningly beautiful but frosty scene that I walk toward the Namlang River, along with two travel companions from Yangon, photographers Htein Linn and Kyaw Zay Ya. We’re on our way to spend the day rafting down the river, and although we’re a bit wary about the low temperature, we’re looking forward to enjoying an adventure of the sort that can be experienced nowhere else in Myanmar.

Fortified with a big European breakfast of eggs, bacon, cheese, croissants, toast and coffee, we pass through the village and make our way down to the river, whose beauty matches that of the rest of the Putao region: smoothly eroded rocks along the banks, crystal-clear water, and no sign of trash or pollution whatsoever.

Cold morning in Mulashidi

Cold morning in Mulashidi

Our sturdy expedition-grade raft is waiting on the bank near the Mulashidi suspension bridge, and the rest of our travel party gathers on the spot to prepare for departure. Aside from myself and the two photographers, the group consists of our raft guide, Deepak from Nepal; his assistant Ko Kee, who is ethnic Lisu; and Moh Moh and Doi Nau Aung, who are along to pose for photographs in traditional Lisu dress.

Deepok explains that although there are no dangerous rapids along the 15-mile stretch of river we will travel, we are likely to get a bit wet at the confluence of the Namlang and Malikha rivers toward the end of the day. So we shove the extra clothes we have brought along into dry bags, don life jackets, and jump into the raft as we push out into the current.

The water in most places is less than three feet deep, its lowest level of the year. We are making our trip about four months after the end of monsoon, and about one month before the snow is expected to start melting in the high mountains, where the Namlang and Malikha originate.

Paddling down the Namlang River

Paddling down the Namlang River

Before we get too far, Deepok coaches us on the paddling commands he will use throughout the day. There are only three — forward, stop and back and Deepok issues them not so much as orders as friendly suggestions. All seven of us in the raft have our own paddles and we all contribute to our progress, but there is also plenty of time dedicated to merely drifting along on the current, looking around and taking photographs.

The weather is perfect for a rafting trip. Despite the cold start, the day warms quickly under a cloudless blue sky. Deepok points out the abundant birdlife along the way. Crested kingfishers and great cormorants fly by alone, while common shelducks (with their white, chestnut, black and green plumage) and orange-brown ruddy shelducks congregate in small groups, sometimes floating in the water and sometimes flying overhead in tight, arrow-shaped migratory formations.

We paddle, then drift, then paddle again, through alternating sections of small rapids and tranquil slow-pids (to borrow the term from Ned Flanders). We pass groves of swaying bamboo trees and see only a few villages, including an ethnic Khamti Shan settlement with a single pagoda, an uncommon sight in the Putao area due to predominance of Christianity. We also pass open rice fields, and at one point where the water is unusually deep, several water buffalo swim across the river in front of our raft.

There are other occasional signs of human habitation, such as traditional fish traps made of bamboo secured in the water, and small homemade waterwheels that supply hydropower to village households. Along some sections of rocky shoreline, we see women washing clothes, kids wading in the water looking for snails to eat, or men panning for gold the old-fashioned, manual way by using concave wooden trays to sift through the silt.

High bridge across the river

High bridge across the river

But there is little actual river traffic. The locals use dugout canoes carved from a single tree trunk, but only to cross from one bank to the other. We seem to be the only ones making a long journey on the water.

At two points along the way we need to stop and portage the raft around bridges that are too low to pass under. The portages are easy, a simple matter of seven people carrying the raft for a few feet before returning to the river. At both stops we take the opportunity to photograph our Lisu models standing on the picturesque bridges.

At the second such stop there are actually two bridges the pesky low one and a higher suspension span — that connect the Rawang village of Zi On, on one side of the river, and the Lisu village of Mula On, on the other side. Here we encounter more human activity than we’ve seen all day, with a handful villagers crossing the bridges by foot and by bullock cart during our stopover.

From here it’s only a short distance to the biggest rapids of the day, at the confluence of the Namlang and Malikha rivers, where Deepok has assured us that we will not be able to avoid getting wet.

Oddly, it is here, in the middle of the river, in the middle of nowhere, in the serene slow-pids just before the confluence, that we get the strongest mobile phone signal of the day. I take advantage of the calm before the storm to call my wife in Yangon and say hello, I love you, I have to hung up now so I can plunge through a stretch of treacherous, ice-cold white water.

The Lisu girls, Moh Moh and Doi Nau Aung

The Lisu girls, Moh Moh and Doi Nau Aung

But I exaggerate. Deepok tells us that the rapids are only Class 2, meaning we can expect little more than some rough water and a few jutting rocks, which can be easily negotiated with basic paddling skills (which for me basically means avoiding dropping my paddle in the water).

We approach the confluence, with the Malikha River coming in from the left and continuing with increasing swiftness to our right. As we watch, a motorised long-tail boat that ferries locals between villages in the area – the only regular river transport we have seen on the entire trip – gets stuck for a few tense minutes in the middle of the rapids, requiring some careful redistribution of nervous passengers and mad revving of the outboard motor to get free and continue.

Then it’s our turn. “Forward,” Deepok suggests, and we paddle out of the Namlang and into the Malikha, instantly getting swept downstream with the swift current.

Just as Deepok had said, there are some rocks jutting from the fast-moving water, one deemed dangerous enough that a wedge-shaped bamboo shield has been built to deflect any boats (or perhaps floating bodies) that might come too close. At one point we hit a smaller rock that almost sends photographer Htein Linn flying into the water, but he regains his balance and manages to stay in the raft. Overall, though, the section is more fun than harrowing, and is just tricky enough to bounce us around a bit and drench us with frigid waves.

After the rapids we enter the most beautiful section of our journey, a narrow ravine with steep, jungle-covered hills and rocky cliffs on either side, and occasional stretches of sandy beach along the deep, slow-moving water. The current is so sluggish (no-pids, to coin a term) that without the aid of paddles we would simply sit there all day.

Even so, we’re in no rush to get anywhere, and we alternate between casual paddling and just floating along, enjoying the sight of cormorants flying high overhead and admiring the twisted riverside rock formations, some of which, with the help of some imagination, resemble animals such as elephants and crocodiles.

We also drift under a rickety suspension bridge that spans the river far overhead, which prompts me to wonder aloud what it would be like to jump from such a height, the plunge from which would allow one a few seconds to contemplate the wisdom of leaping into empty space, and to pray that the water was deep enough. This triggers a conversation between me and Deepak about our past experiences foolishly hurling ourselves into pools of water from the sides of cliffs and the tops of waterfalls.

Rock formations on Spirit Island

Rock formations on Spirit Island

We eventually reach the end of the ravine, passing from the no-pids, back into a stretch of slow-pids (where we can see big fish swimming around the raft), and then through another brief section of rapids. By now it’s mid-afternoon, and we beach the raft on Spirit Island, home to a strange landscape of sand beaches and lunar rock formations. The eeriness is heightened by my discovery, during a brief exploratory walk, of a sun-bleached cow skull lying near a small pool of water.

Spirit Island is the camping site for two-day rafting excursions, but for us it’s the end of the trip. Support staff from the rafting company who, travelling by car and motorboat, had preceded us to the island have already set up a lunch table shaded by two big traditional umbrellas. We dine on corn chowder, potato salad, fish burgers and Myanmar beer. As we eat we watch the cold, clean river rush by, on its way south to Myitkyina and the confluence of the Ayeyarwady River, and then on to warmer climates in central Myanmar, the delta, and the Andaman Sea beyond.