“This is Burma and it is unlike any land that you know about.”
— Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East, 1885
May 9, 2016, 1 p.m., Salween River, Shan States, Myanmar
The blue travertine water trickles down the cascade onto Matt O’Brien, giving him respite from the 112-degree blistering heat and humidity of Eastern Myanmar.
On the far bank, across the river, a peacock scurries into the jungle, possibly running away from something. It’s 1 p.m. and our trip leader Rocky Contos tosses his boatman Kurt Casey a warm Myanmar beer, winks and says, “Cheers old friend.” The three friends drink together, and one by one sink under the clean, clear water of an unnamed tributary of the odorous Salween River.
It’s a timeless moment on the edge of the Opium Triangle, a moment as far from a busy, chaotic, cacophonous world as one can get in this century. The three men know it is why they are here and they marinate in it.
The peacock is now deep in the jungle. Before the three men arrived, the jungle and the river had been full of noise — it’s quiet now. The only sound being the “river sound” of the churning Salween rushing down from the Tibetan Plateau toward its terminus at the Andaman Sea.
But in the dulled background there is another sound. A cryptic sound of hurrying men in boots. Men in fatigues carrying large weaponry. Men with intent. An intent to discover who has come down the river and why.
“They are a quite fascinating problem. They were believed, until quite recent years, to be cannibals. This was disproved, in 1893, by the only British expedition, the only known expedition, that has crossed the wild Wa country. They are certainly head-hunters, and in 1908 are recorded to have secured 87 Chinese heads, besides others. In the wild Wa country every village has its skull avenue outside the village, and at least one skull ought to be added every year, if the crops are not to be a failure.”
— Sir (James) George Scott, 1910, British Burma, Upper India
Earlier that day, May 9, 2016
I lay the book “The Trouser People” down and copy the above quote by Sir George Scott in my journal. The morning is still cool by Burmese standards, maybe 90 degrees. It is day seven on our first descent of the Salween River, near the Opium Triangle. I appreciate the slight breeze coming off the river. Eventually, I know we will come across the Wa Army. Thankfully, they stopped taking heads in the 1960s.
From my research, I’ve learned that they are now an autonomous army dealing in most of the illegal trades in the world. Yesterday, we crossed into their territory. What they will do with us, I can only guess, and most of those guesses aren’t encouraging. We do have permission from the Burmese government to be here, but the autonomous people of the Shan States do not accept Myanmar as their rightful overseers. The Shan States have always been a rebellious piece of geography in Southeast Asia. Interesting to say the least, and dangerous to state the obvious. And the Wa Army is organized danger.
May 9, 2016, 2:30 p.m., 800 meters downriver from Kurt, Matt and Rocky
I stare into the distance where Chris Htet Ye Yaung had walked 30 minutes prior. Chris, our quasi-interpreter, had decided he would walk back upriver to search for the rest of our crew. I thought it was a bad idea, but he felt it to be his duty; the new generation of Burmese is strong.
Chris and I had become fast friends over the last few days. I saw in him what I remember of myself as a youth. A thirst for adventure and exotic locales. A desire to not only read stories, but to be part of them in the real world.
Chris was keenly capable of casting minutiae aside and immersing himself in the moment.
Before he walked off, we made a quick plan that included way too many “ifs.” I told him to only speak English and not to speak Burmese. If it was the Wa we were dealing with, they might kill anyone speaking Burmese or claiming to be a Myanmar representative (linguistically the Shan States are very diverse and the Wa have their own language independent of Burmese).
I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see Chris again.
That was almost an hour ago. My muscles tensed, my heart pounded and my mouth was starting to dry up. I was scared. I knew my brain was pumping my body full of adrenaline; if I didn’t focus, I would begin to make poor choices. Over the years, I have had countless adventures and I’ve been able to find calm within the storm. This time, I’m not calm; I sense the circumstance might be out of control. I’m now fearing for my life and those of my friends.
Sitting down, I think through my options. Sweat pours from my brow and pools in the river sand below me. An unknown insect flies by, and I take the time to focus on its exotic colors and movements. I need to put my fear on the periphery. Otherwise, “fight or flight” will create tunnel vision. I know if I don’t give in to fear, it will eventually subside. It starts to work … but it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve looked across the river and seen peacocks scurrying into the jungle. They look like they’re running away from something. And then I realize what it is.
In the distance I hear a sound, a noisy diesel motor. Then, I see the truck. It is filled with dark-skinned men in camouflage, at least a dozen of them. The men are carrying machine guns and a high-caliber gun is mounted on the truck.
They haven’t seen me yet. Back comes the adrenaline and flight takes over. I run. Fast. Faster than I’ve ran in possibly a decade. I cover the quarter-mile between myself and Josh Fisher, our oarsman on the riverbank, in less than a minute.
Josh, aka White Buffalo, is submerged but for his bright red, sunburned face in the Salween (like a water buffalo). I toss Josh the bow line to his oar frame raft and jump in my inflatable kayak.
I shout at Josh, “We need to get across the river, now!”
“Yes, across the river!”
White Buffalo jumps in his boat, looks at me seriously and says, “We’re screwed.” We cross the river. The peacocks are gone.
November 11, 2017, Roseburg, Oregon
I’ve been lucky enough to see a large portion of the world in my travels. The history, archaeology, cultures, food and people of Myanmar rate at the top of my list. I undertook this first descent of the Salween River with Rocky Contos in May of 2016. Rocky and I officially met in Yangoon just a few days before the trip began. Before that, via email, he had provided me with the necessary beta to packraft the Rio La Venta in the Ocote Wilderness of Chiapas, Mexico. This section of the Salween River had never been officially navigated before. The above words are pulled from the journal I wrote on that trip. It was certainly a trip of a lifetime.
If you would like to hear the rest of this story, you can find me in my Outdoor Recreation office at Umpqua Community College, or even better, take one of the classes the Outdoor Recreation program offers. I will say — we did all make it back alive, and there are many more adventures ahead.
UCC Outdoor Recreation will lead a hiking and camping trip in the Redwoods as a fundraiser for the program during the weekend of Jan. 27 and 28. Participants can choose to donate what they can afford, and all transportation and camping equipment will be provided. The trip will feature short and long hikes, and opportunities to learn map and compass skills. Future trips will be snowshoeing, mountain biking, skiing and rock climbing.
For more information, call 541-670-7612 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.