The steamer docked at the sun-soaked Yangon pier could have just sailed in on a river of ink straight from Kipling’s pen.
Vendors in sarongs scamper and chirrup through the crowded lower deck dodging chickens and crab crates, balancing plates of fried shrimp on their heads. Two decks above, red-robed monks lean with dignity from the first-class cabins dropping paper streamers or unfolding umbrellas.
The SS Baumawady hasn’t seen a paint brush in years; its squat, enormous funnel belches a plume of smoke that scatters the swooping gulls and it positively simmers with smells — spices, sweat, sandalwood, hint of latrine, frying, fuel oil and that gorgeous, indefinable musk of tropical Asia. What Joseph Conrad called the “sigh of the east.”
Here it starts: the river road down to Bogalay city and the mangrove forests of the lower Myanmar delta where the mighty Ayeyarwady River (after a journey of 2,050 km) splits into a spider web of countless channels before emptying into the Andaman Sea.
Myanmar is the largest nation in Indochina (676,581 sq. km), but its population is comparatively small. Its unequaled variety of ecosystems includes the ice-capped eastern Himalayas where the Ayeyarwady first rises, tropical forests, extinct volcanoes and coral reefs. There are tigers, tapirs, elephants, three species of rhinoceros, red pandas, tomb bats, plus little-known mammals such as the mythun, goral, takin and linsang.
The delta mangrove forests are home to some darned weird fish, abundant birds and Crocodylus porosus, the gigantic estuarine crocodile, a species credited with eating 1,000 retreating Japanese soldiers in the mangroves of Rakhine in just one night back in 1945.
More of the crocs later.
As the Baumawady sets sail with an ebullient blast of the whistle, I watch the Yangon high-rises dwindle, the chaotic jumble of river craft recede, and then settle down on the deck with a small stack of books and papers and a bottle of Peace Myanmar Group’s bottled water (“Mineral is essential. Warranty: Absence of E. coli and Pathogenic Organisms.”)
Or, more accurately, distraction time. The children are first. Solemn knots of them, faces painted with thanaka powder, decorously courteous but at the same time entranced by even the most trivial pursuits of a rarely observed foreigner. The papers are abandoned and we get into pulling faces at each other. They do great faces, and the film they use up is budget shattering.
Then there’s the river. Where its banks are not covered with thick stands of phoenix palms, there are stilt huts, betel fields, duck farms, pagodas and fishing villages. Fish traps as convoluted as a Bangkok bamboo building scaffold occupy strategic spots; customs boats mount random searches for contraband on shabby junks; flocks of egrets explode out of reed beds. There are floating shrines, and plenty of shifting sand banks for the SS Baumawady to run aground on, which it does, from time to time.
Eight hours later, as Bogalay city heaves into sight, I feel justifiably proud. Despite the distractions, I’ve managed to read almost three whole pages of the “Ecological Reconnaissance of Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary and Vicinity (MKWS),” by Thorbjarnarson, Platt and Khaing, Wildlife Conservation Society New York.
Executive summary of this excellent report follows. When Myanmar becomes a signatory to the Ramsar Convention for wetlands protection, the 136-sq.-km MKWS should be first to be designated a Ramsar site of world importance. Delta mangroves have suffered this century due to wood cutting and clearance for paddies. MKWS is the last relatively undamaged site with at least 40 species of mangroves. Huge numbers of migratory birds stop here. It is home to five species of jungle cats, river dolphins, the now endangered Crocodylus porosus, one elephant and unique species of turtles (Myanmar has the largest number of turtle species in Southeast Asia, 28 in all).
No one’s really sure quite what else lives here, either in the maze of winding river channels or among the twisted roots of the mangrove stands. Funds for research are urgently needed. One thing that can be stated with certainty, though, is that swimming (or indeed dangling one’s feet cheerily in the sediment-thick water) is unwise.
As Wildlife Dept. Range Officer U Soe Lwin explained on our arrival in Bogalay, estuarine crocodile numbers have crashed in the delta but a release program of 1-year-old juveniles is aiming to bring about a recovery — and there are at least two great survivors.
The first of these is called Htun Shwe (named after the first of its 12 known human victims). The second is dubbed Kyun Pat Gyi (“Island Rounder”) due to its habit of slowly circling an island in the MKWS. The Island Rounder, U Soe Lwin states with assurance, is “30 feet [9 meters] long at least,” which would make it the largest estuarine crocodile ever recorded.
It has certainly eaten enough people, most recently pulling a 30-year-old fisherman who was sitting in his boat washing mud off his legs after entering the MKWS illegally to cut wood. The man’s son tried to pull him back into the boat, but you don’t win tugs of war with the Island Rounder.
Locals believe the two crocodiles are nats (supernatural beings) and hold rituals to appease them.
The best way to visit the area is to book your trip with Woodland Travels, an ecotouristic company that has affiliations with the Department of Forestry. The advantages are various. They handle the red tape, permits, arrange transport and accommodations at the Department of Forestry guest house and hook you up with the range officers who will show you around on foot, but mainly by boat, on day trips from Bogalay.
The range officers are wonderful fellows. They’ll offer you fried beetle larvae (cicada-size; taste and texture like fatty, shrimp-flavored custard, verdict unprintable), regale you with fascinating anecdotes (fights between dolphins and crocs, jackal attacks, the ghost ship that turned up abandoned by its crew but with a hold full of smuggled crocodiles, etc.) and their wives concoct some of the best food I’ve had in Asia. Delta food is a real treat.
In addition to the crocodile breeding program, two delta islands are protected nesting grounds for sea turtles. The Forestry Department is also operating a greatly needed mangrove reforestation program.
“We have 1.4 million mangroves ready to plant in the rainy season,” range officer U Kan Ton explained as mudskippers and mangrove crabs seethed among the shoots and several hundred whistling ducks flew overhead (whistling, as is their wont).
Already 3,680 hectares have been planted and degraded land restored. Good news, not just for wildlife and ecotourists for but also for the delta’s people. Mangroves are nature’s most fertile nurseries for fish, crabs and prawns. When they go, everything and everyone is the poorer for their passing.