HEADWATER OF THE CHINDWIN

Wong How Man
Khamti, Myanmar

Last navigable stretch of the Chindwin River. Momentarily a few leafs drifted down and floated on the stream where rattan and vine branches intertwined overhead. At another open bend of the river, half a dozen water buffaloes lay sunning themselves while as many white egrets stood on their backs. It was all so very romantic and simple; like childhood revisited, when simplicity reigned before the onslaught of gadgetry and other complexities. How could I not feel like a child when looking up at giant trees and forest?

The red spotted clouds before sunrise this morning seemed indicative of a special day. Bill’s boat was in front. I wasn’t sure if he felt the same, as he was turning 60 on this day, but then I was 65. It seemed strange that I was just made a grandfather for the first time and yet felt like a child. But many images, real or imagined, returned as if I was barely a few years old, maybe a boy of five. Perhaps that was what serenity really meant, to feel like a child again.

Sunrise behind jungle trees. The scenery reduced us humans to tiny scale, even with three persons to each of the long-tail boats. We had four boats among nine of us, not including one boatman to each. The running stream was crystal clear. I could see the bottom in most places, through every bend and crook. At times there was a sand bank, which necessitated getting off the boat and pushing it through ten feet or so of maybe three or four inches of ankle-deep water. When the water was knee-deep, our boats could pass without any problem. Other times there were pebbles reflected in multiple colors with small fish darting about. Where the stream was deep and the hue was dark green, I occasionally saw rocks and boulders below. Birds were plentiful, by the sound of them. Who needs to Tweet when nature’s tweets are in real surround sound! I even saw for the first time a pair of Crested Kingfisher, with black and white spots and crowns over their heads.

I had been warned ahead that there would be many shallows in the stream and that we must get off the boat and push during the first half hour of the trip. But curiosity prevailed and I ordered four boats to take us upstream. Our Zodiac inflatables were rendered useless by the long shaft of the outboard motors.

Flock of Shelduck crossing our boat. It turned out to be more like an entire hour of pushing through marginally floatable water before we finally got into the deeper stretch of the stream. We then moved upstream for almost ten kilometers before stopping at a rapid with huge boulders and rocks marking the end of this excursion into the unknown. The return journey was just as pristine though faster, with a rewarding barbeque awaiting us on board the HM Explorer, complemented by a tasty dessert in the form of a birthday cake for Bill. The entire crew and staff of ten including the Captain together with the CERS team made nineteen, and we sang joyously to the strumming of a guitar, wishing Bill a happy birthday.

Nan Sa Wa, the stream we had navigated, was on the west bank of the Chindwin River opposite Kaung Hein Village. This Shan settlement was of interest to our biologists, as the Htamanthi Forest Reserve was not far off to the east. One family by the Chindwin even had as a house pet in the form of a Phayre’s Langur, a type of leaf monkey with a distinctive face, sporting white patches around the eyes. Poh-niu, meaning browny, was brought up from a baby and had now turned three years old. Nearby farmers complained of other more unwelcomed guests; a herd of eleven elephants including two babies, trampling their fields every three months or so. That however, was welcome news to our newest biologist, Camilla, whose specialty is the study of elephants.

Burmese lady with Langur monkey. This trip echoed another excursion from the day before, as my team, again in several local boats, reached the very end of the Chindwin River at another gushing rapid. Beyond this point the river actually continued, but took on a new name; Thee Sar, a Naga name. Geographically and on maps we may still call the same river’s upper reaches the Chindwin, reflecting our ignorance that the local name changes as the river flows through Naga regions. Highe still the Thee Sar would become the Ta Naing Kha, as its uppermost reaches flowed through the Kachin area.

Khamti and surrounding areas were historically home to the Naga, a hill tribe whose range extended westward into the Assam region of India. Integration of the Naga into Myanmar came late and has been marginal. At Khamti, the local police chief demanded that four policemen be stationed on board the HM Explorer during the time we were to explore the river north of the town. Armed with an M-16 and two other assault machine guns, a contingent of three police officers led by Captain Ye Naing Soe was put in charge of our security detail. One of the four, Wompod, was a Naga, age 21. He had joined the force three years ago, beginning with a year of training at a camp near Inle Lake. Together we spent three days and two nights on our boat as we became almost close friends.

Coming and going to local market. While some of us doubted whether their real reason for being on board was not to keep watch over us, I trusted that the Ministry of Home Security at Nay Pyi Taw could easily have refrained from giving out our permit had they been worried about us moving around at will. Instead I believed Captain Ye Naing Soe’s story that there were independent Naga fighters roaming in the hills or looming in the shadows, posing danger to us outsiders. The heavy guard and sentry positioned in the hills during my visit two years ago to the Naga Festival attested to this real danger.

Apart from Naga villages, others were mainly Shan villages, where some Chin people also lived. We visited three Naga villages, two near Khamti and one up a side stream off the Chindwin. Each village had a church, as the majority of the Naga were Christians. While outside these could easily be identified by a cross, inside was spartan with a simple altar and little or no other decorations. At Pin Htaung Village up the side stream, on Saturday evenings there would be a service with bible study and on Sunday there were three services during the day. U Mular was both the priest and the village chief. The village also had a Buddhist monastery, offering prayers twice a month, attended by only ten out of forty-three families in the village.

Young Chinese couple at Khamti town. Zhang Hongchun and Guo Jaohuan, a modest and friendly middle-aged couple, were born in Khamti, but of Chinese descent. They had a small variety store inside the market place of Khamti. The couple spoke to me in fluent Mandarin Chinese. Both of their parents were from Yunnan near the Burmese border. “We used to have a Chinese school here when we were young. Back then we had about forty students. But now there are less than ten families and maybe only six or seven students, so the school was closed for a long time now,” Guo said. Her two boys are still young, one attending school in Khamti while the older one is studying at a Chinese school in Mandalay, cared for by Guo’s sister.

“The Naga used to wear no clothes coming down from the hill, even up to twenty years ago,” said Guo. That seemed to match descriptions in the book The Naked Naga written in 1939 by anthropologist von Furer-Haimendorf. “Their living conditions were very poor and they only had with them a blanket to keep warm,” she added. But these blankets were very nicely woven with traditional dye in blue and bright red patches and colored threads as decorations. We bought one specimen for our collection on the boat while visiting Pin Htaung Village.

Armed police guard for Dr Bleisch to explore the Naga streams. The highlight of our trip on the Chindwin came on the day we explored above Khamti. Our team left the HM Explorer after breakfast in two local long-tail boats, escorted by three heavily-armed police. Our two Zodiac inflatables went along just in case of emergency as rescue boats. After leaving Khamti we soon entered a narrow gorge of the river, with heavy vegetation on both banks. Despite its relatively narrow width, the river was calm and I saw many water snakes with their heads above water surging forward.

At most stretches there were sporadic fishermen along the banks. At one particular spot however, a group of boats numbering almost twenty had gathered about in what seemed to be cooperative fishing. Later we were to stop and find out that they were all from one village across from Khamti. Using heavy nets, they could harvest each day many very large fish weighing over 15 kilos each, a surprisingly regular catch. Bill surmised that perhaps the gorge might be a sanctuary for these fish, growing to huge sizes.

Armed police escorting CERS team at Naga hill of northern Myanmar. After about ninety minutes on the boats, we finally got to the end of the navigable stretch of the entire Chindwin River. From this point on upriver was a fast running rapid, a drop in the river where white foam splashed upward. The locals called this the waterfall, though in reality it was a white water cascade. We had arrived at this uppermost headwater of the Chindwin above which no boat could negotiate past. From here, the river took on the Naga name of Thee Sar.

Climbing the rocky bank to the west of the river, we could appreciate the view from above. While this was no Eureka moment and I could hardly call this the source of the Chindwin, it was no small accomplishment to gain this far point on a boat, through the entire navigable distance of the river. As a first reconnaissance to the uppermost Chindwin, I felt quite gratified that now we know the geography along this most important tributary of the Irrawaddy.

Back at Khamti, I had to say good bye to our bodyguards and we bid farewell to Captain Ye Naing Soe and the three other police officers. I no longer felt apprehensive, heading south once again on the Chindwin. But I was also a bit disappointed that we did not come into contact with the famed Naga warriors, nor get to fire a shot with those impressive machine guns.