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."