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.