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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.

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