The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is a source of continuity and hope in a country at odds with itself.

Boy bathing

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is a source of continuity and hope in a country at odds with itself.

Myanmar’s River of Spirits

In a country filled with strife, the Irrawaddy is a source of hope for the Burmese people. It is where they wash, drink, travel, and pray.

This story appears in the May 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I've always believed the best way to know a river is to paddle it, to feel its undercurrents and speed, to take in the changing nature of its banks. I wanted to explore the romance of Myanmar's Irrawaddy River, which has stirred the imagination of some of the world's greatest writers, such as Kipling and Orwell. The name "Irrawaddy" is an English corruption of Ayerawaddy Myit, which some scholars translate as "river that brings blessings to the people." But it's less a river than a test of faith, receding during the country's dry season until its banks sit exposed and cracking in the sun, only to return each spring with the monsoon, coming to life, flooding fields, replenishing the country with water, fish, and fertile soil. The Irrawaddy has never disappointed the Burmese. It is where they wash, what they drink, how they travel. Inseparable from their spiritual life, it is their hope.

So I set out to experience the Irrawaddy, the historical lifeline of Myanmar, paddling my first 340 miles (550 kilometers) in a kayak. The waters are icy cold to the touch as I get in my inflatable red kayak near Myitkyina and shove off into the brisk current, the soft blue waters winding with patient certainty toward distant hills. Shelducks, lounging in the shallows, take to the air, their ruddy feathers gleaming in the sunlight. Civilization quickly passes as I leave Myitkyina behind me, and save for the solitary gold panner digging into a sandbar, I have the spread of river and sky to myself.

The peace around me belies Myanmar's recent history. Today the country is notorious as the place where Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 10 of the past 17 years. It is a totalitarian state controlled by a group of ruling generals who in 1989 changed the name of the former British colony from Burma to Myanmar, a version of its precolonial name. In 1990, Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy (NLD) won more than 80 percent of the seats in national elections. The ruling junta, refusing to relinquish power, ignored the election result and clamped down on all opposition groups; in 2003 dozens of Suu Kyi's backers were reportedly killed or injured during the "Black Friday" attack by government supporters. Meanwhile, human rights reports have cited evidence of killings and torture as hundreds of thousands of villagers in ethnic communities have been forced to abandon their homes and relocate to deny insurgents a civilian base. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned Myanmar as one of the world's six "outposts of tyranny."

Surely it is this troubled history that follows me along the Irrawaddy as I make my long journey to the sea, and that offers an explanation for why my government guide, Jiro, who follows behind me each day in a motorized boat, tells me I shouldn't talk to anyone about politics or religion. Surely it helps to explain why large swaths of the country are off-limits to tourists, who are kept to a well-trodden route leading from the capital of Yangon to Mandalay to the temples of Bagan. To deviate from this route—to paddle a kayak down a river—arouses suspicion.

Jiro, 33, works for the Ministry of Tourism and will be filing reports on me with police or military intelligence posts along the river for the next five weeks. He is an amiable and gregarious man who got married days before I arrived. He knows this isn't how I envisioned the trip, but there's nothing he can do. We strike a compromise: He keeps his boat far away so I can paddle with the illusion of being alone.

Gratefully, the Irrawaddy knows nothing of politics. It is 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) of indifference to such things. No matter what happens, I can count on it to carry me along, as if the river were a metaphor for the teaching that guides the 89 percent of Burmese who are Buddhists: All that arises, passes away. These waters speak of glacial beginnings in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalaya below Tibet. They have surged through jungle-covered highlands to emerge in the sun-scorched plains of central Myanmar, where they will continue to the ocean, releasing finally into the Andaman Sea.

Docked beside one village, I find a small, lavishly decorated shrine on a wobbly bamboo raft—the first of a handful of such shrines I will see along the river. Inside is a bronze statue of Shin U Pa Gota, the "saint" of all waters. Local villagers have left offerings of flowers, rice cakes, and locks of hair at his altar. According to legend, Shin U Pa Gota grew up a troubled boy until the Buddha visited him and brought him instant enlightenment. From that moment, he spent his time meditating in the Irrawaddy.

He is the saint of boatmen, of fishermen, of anyone who relies on the river. Bowing before him, I hope he is the saint of kayakers, too. In another day or two, the villagers will set the raft loose so it can continue down the river, bringing blessings to the next village that takes it in. I wonder if the raft will make it all the way to the end of the river. I can hardly imagine that end for myself now, the river opening wide, taking me into limitless blue waves.

Past the town of Bhamo, my paddling becomes a pilgrimage, each bend in the river, each rise of a hill prom­ising the sight of a bright white pagoda pointing heavenward. Riverside temples smell of sandalwood incense and jasmine flowers. Bells on pago­da steeples tinkle in the breeze. The river winds past pristine 800-foot (240-meter) high cliffs leading to Shwe Kyundaw—Golden Royal Island—where thousands of stupas rise from a tiny island barely half a mile (0.8 kilometers) long.

I park my kayak on a sandbar near white steps that rise from the water's edge. Everything is strangely silent. No one is around; to the Burmese people, the Golden Island is an unspeakably holy place on the Irrawaddy, where the Buddha himself is said to have pointed, announcing that an island would arise. And not just any island, but a place where a pagoda would be built along with 7,777 stupas, each to contain a relic from his own body after he died. The Golden Island rose as prophesied, and more than 2,500 years later the promised stupas still stand, crumbling from the heat and dust of eons.

An old man in saffron robes greets me with a smile and a bow. He is the head monk, the Venerable Bhaddanta Thawbita. At 82 years old, he looks as much a relic of the ancient island as its stupas. He has lived on the Golden Island his entire life, beneath its arching bodhi trees and golden pagoda. During World War II, he watched as Japanese soldiers hid among the stupas, prompting Allied Forces to bomb the entire island. Two buildings survived the damage completely unscathed: the main temple and a crypt where four sacred statues—depicting the Buddha's previous incarnations—are kept, each believed to contain his actual blood.

They are considered such holy objects that in 1997 General Khin Nyunt—since ousted from the ruling junta—decided he wanted to move them from the island to a special temple in the capital. Thawbita strongly cautioned him against it. Witnesses later described how at the moment Nyunt reached the river with the statues, the sky grew dark and a violent storm began. Terrified, the chastened general promptly returned them.

Busy with visiting locals, Thawbita has his assistant monk, 67-year-old Ashin Kuthala, guide me into the temple. I expect the statues to be stored deep in a vault, far from visitors, but instead they rest on silk sheets inside a gilded cage just a few feet from passersby. I find their close proximity a rare gift. I gaze at the large padlock on the metal door. I ask Kuthala if he ever opens the door to the cage.

"Only for VIPs," he says. "For prime ministers, heads of state."

"Oh." I study the statues. I press my case. Kuthala takes a moment for consideration—and then goes to get the keys.

He asks me to sit on the floor just outside the chamber. Unlocking the door, he goes inside and brings out one of the statues. Holding it, he asks me to pray. He places the statue on top of my head and begins reciting something from scripture. My eyes brim with tears. I'm lost in time.

The dry zone of central Myanmar, though one of the country's most populated regions, receives fewer than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain a year. The land is brown and parched, patches of cactus providing the only green. Each day the heat reaches at least 115ºF (46ºC), dust clouds blooming at any suggestion of wind. It's next to impossible to stay hydrated, my only shade being the four-inch (10 centimeter) brim of a hat. As I paddle, streams of barges overloaded with old-growth teak logs come at me like leviathans; it's a wonder there are any trees left. The river, passing numerous towns, becomes covered for miles with raw sewage.

As I kayak through floating trails of excrement, I am bolstered by the memory of a local woman named Than, 35, whom I met squatting on the rocky shore near the town of Myitkyina. Her wiry forearms were burnished a coffee brown from the sun, and she wore a dirty sarong around her tiny waist. All day long she raised a mallet over a pile of rocks before her, cracking them into halves, then into fourths, to sell to the roadbuilders. Her two-year-old son, naked and with a bloated belly, stood nearby; her two daughters, ages three and twelve, helped gather the rocks. I asked how long she'd been doing such work. "Ten years," she said. There was no bitterness in her voice. Just the crack of her mallet on a new stone.

Since 1996 the Myanmar government has sponsored a campaign to encourage tourism, but there's been much debate in the West about traveling to this country. Suu Kyi advises against it, arguing that tourism funds the government's oppression; other Burmese exiles believe tourism creates much needed jobs for local people and provides foreign witnesses to internal conditions. Shortly after I'd arrived in the country, I shared a taxi with a stranger in Yangon who suddenly started telling me about his support for Suu Kyi and his expectations of the collapse of the country's military leadership. There seems to be a need among people to talk to someone—anyone—from outside the country. To tell the world about a hidden, deep suffering. Unwittingly, I find that I am viewed less as a tourist than as a witness.

As I pull my kayak onto the shore of the tiny village of Myitkangyi, children gather nearby, mouths agape. When I take a step toward them, they run off, screaming. I think of how I must look—bush hat and sunglasses, my face coated with white sunscreen. I remove as much of it as I can. A sole child remains, a toddler of about three, who, to judge from the screams of an older boy hiding behind a boat, hasn't the good sense to avoid strange white women arriving in kayaks. When I turn my back, the older boy leaps out and seizes the child, dragging him to safety.

The children look skinny; UNICEF reports 32 percent of Burmese children under five years of age are malnourished. I take out a bag of candy from my backpack and hold it out to the children. "I come in peace," I say. An adult approaches and encourages them to snatch a piece of candy. Before long, my bag is empty.

Myitkangyi is a primitive village. It has no electricity or running water, no motorized vehicles, no telephones or paved roads. Everyone lives in thatch huts on stilts, and the only ground transportation is by oxcart. Like most villages along the river, it is self-sufficient, with its own blacksmith, carpenter, and wheelwright.

I pitch my tent on a sandbank across from the village, and adults wander over to sit on their haunches and study me for hours. When I eat dinner in the boat, word goes out. Soon a large crowd has gathered, sighing in unison as I open a can of Coke, exclaiming if I drop something.

The local fishermen are a bit more used to outsiders. A few scientists have recently come to the tiny village to witness an unusual ritual: using dolphins to help catch fish. To San Lwin, 42, a fisherman who shows me the practice the following morning, there is nothing remarkable about this. His father taught him to fish with dolphins when he was 16; the practice has been passed down for generations. Lwin's face, bronzed and creased from the sun, expresses a sort of reverence as he studies the silver waters for sight of a dolphin fin. "If a dolphin dies," he says, "it's like my own mother has died."

We reach the area of the river where Lwin says the dolphins congregate. Classified as critically endangered, only about 70 Irrawaddy dolphins are left in the river that gives them their name. Lwin and the other men tap small, pointed sticks against the sides of their canoes and make high-pitched cru-cru sounds. Several gray forms, gleaming in the sunlight, arch through the water toward us. One with a calf by her side spits air loudly through her blowhole.

"Goat Htit Ma!" Lwin yells, pointing at her and smiling. "She's calling to us!" Goat Htit Ma has been fishing with them for 30 years, Lwin says.

The fishermen splash their paddles to tell the dolphins they'd like to fish together. One dolphin separates from the group and begins swimming back and forth in large semicircles. It submerges again, reappearing less than ten feet (three meters) from our canoe, its tail waving with frantic urgency. Lwin winds up and tosses a lead-weighted net over the spot where the dolphin has shown its tail. The net spreads in the air like a great parachute, quickly sinking beneath the water. As Lwin slowly pulls it in, numerous silver fish flap in the strings. Lwin says the dolphins help themselves to any fish that escape the nets.

We are following the dolphins upriver when we pass some gill-net fishermen camped along the shore. This is one of the biggest threats to the Irra­waddy dolphin: Long nets are stretched across sections of the river to catch anything and everything that passes by—including dolphins.

The fishermen call to us. "Do you want to see a big fish?" they ask. They produce a six-foot (two-meter) long nga maung-ma, or catfish, its head a foot and a half (a half meter) wide, its great whiskers three feet long (one meter). The orange-and-white body, dotted with black spots, glows in the sunlight, a masterpiece of creation. Tomorrow they'll take it to Mandalay and sell it for a small fortune: 45,000 kyat or 55 dollars—about a quarter of the average Burmese's yearly income.

As we begin paddling after the dolphins again, I ask Lwin to wait.

"I'd like to buy the catfish," I say.

The gill-net men laugh at the idea, but when I show them the 45,000 kyat, they hand over the fish. My plan is to reach the deep channel on the opposite bank so I can set it free. For centuries, Buddhist monks living along the river have cherished these giant catfish; at the monastery near Thabeikkyin, monks told me they hand-feed giant catfish during the rainy season. And now Lwin, a Buddhist, eagerly embraces my plan to free the fish, noting the karmic merit I will accrue. But my sudden desire to save the fish's life is a simple matter: I just don't want that great orange fellow to die.

Numerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping them has become big busi­­ness. Traveling the lazy way for the rest of my trip—by motorized boat—I stop near a small village called Thar Yar Gone to witness a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Inside a large thatch hut, musicians play loud, frenetic music before a crowd of rowdy onlookers. On the opposite end of the hut, on a raised stage, sit several wooden statues: nat, or spirit, effigies. I pass through the crowd and enter a space underneath the stage, where a beautiful woman intro­duces herself as Phyo Thet Pine. She is a nat-kadaw, literally a "spirit's wife"—a performer who is part psychic, part shaman.

Only she isn't a woman—she is a he, a transvestite wearing bright red lipstick, expertly applied black eyeliner, and delicate puffs of powder on each cheek. Having traveled to the village by oxcart, smears of dirt covering my sweaty arms and face, I feel self-conscious before Pine's painstakingly created femininity. I smooth my hair and smile in apology at my appearance, shaking Pine's delicate, well-manicured hand.

The cult of the nats is Myanmar's ancient animist religion. In the 11th century, King Ana­wrahta established the Theravada school of Buddhism as Myanmar's primary religion. When his attempts to eliminate nat worship, considered a form of occultism not accepted by Buddhist scriptures, proved fruitless, he decided to adapt it instead, creating an official pantheon of 37 spirits to be worshipped as subordinates of the Buddha. The result is that many Buddhist temples in Myanmar now have their own nat-sin, spirit house, attached to the main pagoda.

Though people still worship spirits outside the official pantheon, the 37 enjoy a VIP status, with traveling troupes of dancers, singers, and musicians reenacting the human stories of the spirits' tumultuous lives and violent deaths. But nat-kadaws are more than just actors; they believe that the spirits actually enter their bodies and possess them. Each has an entirely different personality, requiring a change in costume, decorations, and props. Some of the spirits might be female, for whom the male nat-kadaw dons women's clothing; others, warriors or kings, require uniforms and weapons.

To most Burmese, being born female rather than male is karmic punishment indicating grave transgressions in former lifetimes. Many Burmese women, when leaving offerings at temples, pray to be reincarnated as men. But to be born gay—that is viewed as the lowest form of human incarnation. Where this leaves Myanmar's gay men, psychologically, I can only imagine. It perhaps explains why so many become nat-kadaws. It allows them to assume a position of power and prestige in a society that would otherwise scorn them.

Pine, who is head of his troupe, conveys a kind of regal confidence. His trunks are full of make-up and colorful costumes, making the space under the stage look like a movie star's dressing room. He became an official nat-kadaw, he says, when he was only 15. He spent his teenage years traveling around villages, performing. He went to Yangon's University of Culture, learning each of the dances of the 37 spirits. It took him nearly 20 years to master his craft. Now, at age 33, he commands his own troupe and makes 110 dollars for a two-day festival—a small fortune by Burmese standards.

He outlines his eyes with eyeliner and draws an intricate mustache on his upper lip. "I'm preparing for Ko Gyi Kyaw," he says. It is the notorious gambling, drinking, fornicating spirit.

The crowd, juiced on grain alcohol, hoots and shouts for Ko Gyi Kyaw to show himself. A male nat-kadaw in a tight green dress begins serenading the spirit. The musicians create a cacophony of sound. All at once, from beneath a corner of the stage, a wily-looking man with a mustache bursts out, wearing a white silk shirt and smoking a cigarette. The crowd roars its approval.

Pine's body flows with the music, arms held aloft, hands snapping up and down. There is a controlled urgency to his movements, as if, at any moment, he might break into a frenzy. When he talks to the crowd in a deep bass voice, it sounds nothing like the man with whom I just spoke. "Do good things!" he admonishes the crowd, throwing money. People dive for the bills, a great mass of bodies pushing and tearing at each other. The melee ends as quickly as it had erupted, torn pieces of money lying like confetti on the ground. Ko Gyi Kyaw is gone.

That was just the warm-up. The music reaches a feverish pitch when several performers emerge to announce the actual spirit possession ceremony. This time Pine seizes two women from the crowd—the wife of the hut's owner, Zaw, and her sister. He hands them a rope attached to a pole, ordering them to tug it. As the frightened women comply, they bare the whites of their eyes and begin shaking. Shocked as if with a jolt of energy, they start a panicked dance, twirling and colliding into members of the crowd. The women, seemingly oblivious to what they are doing, stomp to the spirit altar, each seizing a machete.

The women wave the knives in the air, dancing only a few feet away from me. Just as I am considering my quickest route of escape, they collapse, sobbing and gasping. The nat-kadaws run to their aid, cradling them, and the women gaze with bewilderment at the crowd. Zaw's wife looks as if she had just woken from a dream. She says she doesn't remember what just happened. Her face looks haggard, her body lifeless. Someone leads her away.

Pine explains that the women were possessed by two spirits, ancestral guardians who will now provide the household with protection in the future. Zaw, as the house owner, brings out two of his children to "offer" to the spirits, and Pine says a prayer for their happiness. The ceremony ends with an entreaty to the Buddha.

Pine goes under the stage to change and reappears in a black T-shirt, his long hair tied back, and begins to pack his things. The drunken crowd mocks him with catcalls, but Pine looks unfazed. I wonder who pities whom. The next day he and his dancers will have left Thar Yar Gone, a small fortune in their pockets. Meanwhile, the people in this village will be back to finding ways to survive along the river.

A well-dressed man in glasses is frowning at me. I am on the dock of the last major town on the Irrawaddy, in the delta region where greenery has replaced the desert scrub of the dry zone. The banks are crowded with teak vessels painted in hues that mimic the tropical landscape. But we have a problem. Someone forgot to list Moulmeingyun on my special permit. So I am here illegally. Much of the delta is off-limits to tourists. Did I journey nearly 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) on the Irrawaddy to have to turn back now, only one day from my goal?

I have been with Jiro long enough to know when he is nervous. He stands straighter; he makes obsequious shows of respect. I feel terrible that my trip has turned into such a headache for everyone. Gone from Jiro's face is the joy from his recent marriage, replaced with anxiety and exhaustion.

We're told we won't be able to camp along the Irrawaddy tonight; instead, we will stay in the town's guesthouse. It is not a choice. We head there immediately, and the receptionist ushers me to a concrete-walled cubicle that's stiflingly hot, reeking of urine, the bedsheets stained with blood and dirt. I sit on the edge of the bed to wait while Jiro reports to the police. After a while the heat drives me outside, and I have just reached the street when the receptionist comes after me, shouting that I must return to my room. When I do, I find a grim-looking man stationed in a chair outside my door, glaring at me. It's clear I am not to leave my room again.

I am trying to accept having to end my trip in Moulmeingyun, when the local authorities inexplicably change their minds: They will allow me to go to the sea. We speed off in a motorboat before dawn, the town vanishing into the darkness behind us. As we travel down the last few miles of the river, the sun rises as pure orange light over the mangrove swamps and jungle. We arrive at villages where the people cluster around me, eager to know who I am, where I have been. The children hold their palms together reverentially to receive my offerings of candy.

We travel farther until the river suddenly breaks open to the sea. Sunlight dazzles the churning waters, my thermometer reading 119°F (48°C)—the hottest day of my trip. The heat is staggering, as if the weight of the white sky is about to collapse. We putter slowly toward a distant spit of land crowned with a golden stupa: Eya village. The last village on the Irrawaddy.

As we dock beside a white beach, I trade the sight of the Irrawaddy for the aquamarine waves of the Andaman Sea. Palm trees rustle in the breeze. Canoes dot the water, where men dive for scallops. They are Eya's biggest moneymaker—the shells ten times more valuable than the meat; each ten-pound sack (4.5 pounds), sold as fodder to chicken farms, will net the equivalent of 12 cents.

All the people I meet in Eya—young and old— say they have never seen a white person. From their thatch huts raised on stilts, they climb down to get a good look at me. They have seen a man from China a few times, they say, but never someone who looks like me.

Though the Myanmar coastline was largely spared by the great tsunami of 2004, Eya's residents tell me that it did strike their village. An old woman, her eyes wide, describes the great waves coming and everyone in Eya fleeing inland. "But no one died," she says. "The Lord Buddha protected us."

As I walk through the village, down its narrow spit of land completely exposed to the sea, I miss the security of being on the Irrawaddy, which, for all its heat and mercurial moods, felt like the safest place of my entire trip.

"We have a beautiful life," the woman says. "We can get money from the Irrawaddy and the sea."

And they have a special job, too: The residents of Eya rescue the Shin U Pa Gota rafts that manage to make the long journey down the river and put the statues inside a special shrine in the village. Perhaps Shin U Pa Gota wasn't meant to enter the sea.

Nor am I. I'm ready to go home. I get in the motorboat, and we return to the Irrawaddy.

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