Chindwin River Part I: Travel Along the Chindwin

Tied up dugout on Chindwin River.
Tied up dugout on Chindwin River.

In January 2014 the Chindwin River was not a popular destination for foreigners. I saw no other Caucasian on the voyage traveling upriver between Monywa and Homalin.  I was asked several times if I was a missionary (what did that mean?)

Girls I met on river.
Girls I met on river.

The blog below is for those considering a similar trip. Without my guide, Mr. Saw, I would not have been able to purchase boat tickets and find the guest houses at each stop in less than the four days it took us to travel. Unfortunately, my time was limited. But I suggest others allow for more time in each village and schedule buffer time for the inevitable delays. Costs below are listed in Kyats, which at the time of my trip had a conversion ratio of 1000 Kyats (pronounced chats) to $1 USD. Carry both small denominations of Kyats for river travel and USD for places where they won’t take Kyats from foreigners. 

First Class on the Chindwin
First Class on the Chindwin

January 3, 2014 Leave Monywa by boat at 3 a.m.  Arrive Kalewa 5:30 p.m. The trip along the parallel road takes 10 hours.

First class seats.
First class seats.

First class entertainment was a TV at the front of the boat. High pitch Burmese songs blared non-stop from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. I was thankful for the cushioned seat rather than a hard bench seat for 14 hours.

Second class seats.
Second class seats.

Boat Cost for 1st class was: 33,000 Kyats for foreigners 17,000 Kyats for local residents.

Life along the river is simple. Porters come in handy on these steep slopes.
Life along the river is simple. Porters come in handy on these steep slopes.

Porters charged 500 kyats to carry my 50 pound bag up the hill.

First class meal. Guess where the styrofoam goes?
First class meal. Guess where the styrofoam goes?
Food on the boat came with the ticket but dinner in the village cost about 1500 Kyats
Guest house on Chindwin.
Guest house on Chindwin.
The guest house in Kalewa cost 6000 Kyats  Electricity was on from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  This is important if you want to charge a phone or computer. I used only the phone’s camera, since there was no cell coverage. Some villages had internet connections when there was electricity but most of the time the internet was down.
Looking west to Chin Mountains and route to Kalaymo on right. Bridge across Myittha leads south to Monywa
Looking west to Chin Mountains and route to Kalaymo on right. Bridge across Myittha leads south to Monywa

Many foreigners traveling down the river from Homalin stop at Kalewa then fly out of Kalaymo, which is inland rather than continue on the Chindwin to Monywa. The distance  from Kalewa to Kalaymo is 20 km or a 2 hr truck ride . If you want to go further  to Kennedy Peak, the route the 1942 Ragoon residents took to evade the Japanese, is 70 km (or an additional 50 km west): a 4 hr truck ride. 

Coal from the local hills.
Coal from the local hills.
Sedimentary rock (sandstone) is found along the river, but in the foothills coal and natural gas is mined.

January  4, 2014  Leave Kalewa by boat at 11 a.m. Arrive Mawlaik 5:00 p.m. Travel from Kalewa to Mawlaik by road is not possible.

Bridge in background collapsed from monsoon floods and earthquakes.
Bridge in background collapsed from monsoon floods and earthquakes.

At least one bridge was down. If the bridge was serviceable the road between Kalewa and Mawlaik is 36 km or a 3 hour drive.  Without the road, residents had to take the boat and board midstream where the river was too shallow for the boat to go to shore.

Midstream boarding included taking a dugout to the commercial boat.
Midstream boarding included taking a dugout to the commercial boat.

After Kalewa, first class travel changed from cushioned seats to shared metal boxes. A log grader and government lumber inspector shared the first class box with me and my guide. It held 6 adults and was, 4 feet high by 10 feet wide by 8 feet long with a cotton cloth covering a metal floor.

First class box was 4ft x 10ft x 8ft. Day packs are 18 inches high.
First class box was 4ft x 10ft x 8ft. Day packs are 18 inches high.

The cost of a 1st class box between Kalewa and Mawlaik was 20,000 Kyats. 

On board, you could buy from the kitchen (this photo) or from midriver or shore food vendors.
On board, you could buy from the kitchen (this photo) or from midriver or shore food vendors.

Dinner and breakfast in Mawlaik cost 6000 Kyats,  The guest house cost 10,000 Kyats but that was because I stayed longer than 24 hours or beyond the 2 p.m. cut off time.  The Guesthouse, which was located across the street from the police station, let me use their bicycle for free to tour the village.  All guest houses have TVs. It was a good opportunity to sit with the locals and observe or interact.

Riverside restaurant.
Riverside restaurant.

I met many geologists during my trip on the river. They were on the river conducting investigations for coal and natural gas. Another natural resource was sand, which was excavated and exported for construction purposes.  Unfortunately, the sand excavation resulted in undermining the banks along the river.

Typical settlement along the river.
Typical settlement along the river.
January 5, 2014 Leave Mawlaik by boat at 5:45 p.m.  Arrive in Homalin 2 p.m. on January 6. 
No electronics here. Day time travel was best with manual depth finder for sandbars.
No electronics here. Day time travel was best with manual depth finder for sandbars.
The boat grounded at 9 p.m. and for one hour all the men got off the boat to rock it free. They were unable to push it off the sandbar like they had earlier. So a tug boat was called up from Mawlaik to pull us out to deeper water. Men stationed on each side of the boat use simple bamboo poles and probed the water to determine depth. 
Getting from the front to the back of the boat required shimmying along narrow walkway before climbing into the metal 1st class box.
Getting from the front to the back of the boat required shimmying along narrow walkway before climbing into the metal 1st class box.
Later we got stuck on another sandbar at 2 a.m.  It was too dark to continue, so they shut down the boat until daylight, or  6 a.m. Getting up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse and shimmying along the narrow walkway with a fast flowing river over the edge was quite an experience – But the stars in the night sky were spectacular.
Outhouse on boat - guess where it all goes.
Outhouse on boat – guess where it all goes.
The lights in the 1st class box stayed on all night, making sleep difficult. The sounds through the paper thin walls of snoring, farting, crying babies, and the cold metal floor, as well as gasoline smelling like it had an additive of naphthalene, made sleep impossible.
Sights along the Chindwin.
Sights along the Chindwin.

To see villages, stupas, and trade along the river was worth the inconvenience. This stretch of the river includes jade and surface gold mines, and, like the rest of the river, a lot of teak logging. Early the next morning, in the dense fog, the vendor boats arrived to sell “fast food.” 

Chindwin River Fast Food vendor boat.
Chindwin River Fast Food vendor boat.
The log grader and government lumber official got off at one of the logging stops along the river. In their place, a woman who sold betel nuts to support her entire family, got on to share the 1st class box. She talked, or perhaps it was the betel nut that talked, nonstop for 3 hours.
Boarding midriver was a challenge.
Boarding midriver was a challenge.
An alternative to river travel from Mawlaik to Homalin is a 100 km road on the east side of the Chindwin River. It’s a 2 day ride, depending upon the weather.
Chain of stupas accessed only from the river.
Chain of stupas accessed only from the river.

The cost of a 1st class box between Mawlaik and Homalin was 30,000 Kyats for foreigners. Food on the boat was 5000 Kyats. Once I arrived in Homalin, dinner in town was 2250 Kyats. There are more guest houses in Homalin than in the other villages along the river, but most were full when we arrived at 2:30 p.m. So I ended up at one of the simple places for 10,000 Kyats per room. They kindly provided a pail of heated water for a bucket shower.

Peanut field in flower.
Peanut field in flower.

Due to the delay on the river, we arrived at the Myanma Airlines office in Homalin at 2:30  p.m. We had to wait around until 5:30 p.m. before tickets could be purchased because there were reservations for all the seats. There are only two airlines that fly into Homalin, so departure from Homalin was limited to 3 times per week. If I didn’t catch the plane I would have been in Homalin another 4 days. That would have meant missing other sites I wanted to see in Myanmar. 

Homalin boat landing.
Homalin boat landing.
Myanma Airline staff graciously sent a local boy to all the homes and guesthouses of those with flight reservations to see if there would be any no-shows. There were four cancellations. The plane ticket for a foreigner cost $90 US (must be USD and exact amount) and for locals it cost 64,000 Kyats. Plus there’s a charge of 2000 Kyats for non-carryon luggage. 
Homalin is a relatively large city. I guess around 100,000.
Homalin is a relatively large city. I guess around 100,000.

January 7, 2014 The plane left in the morning around 8 a.m. The same people who sold the tickets in town, processed tickets at the airport, checked baggage, and served as security before boarding.  This meant if you were in town and had questions while they were at the airport, you had to wait until the plane departed. There was a separate inspection of my purse, which was conducted in a dark closet by a female employee. I don’t think she could see anything. Be sure to reserved 4000 kyats for the taxi to the airport (which was basically the back of a truck.)

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