Gliding along the Dokhtawady River, we pass blissful, bathing water buffalo, only their heads and twitching ears visible above the water. We chug past sprawling banyan trees, their exposed roots creeping along the muddy richness of the river bank soil, their lofty branches offering brief respites of shade. Shan locals are all around using the river for bathing or transporting their precious harvests. Acres and acres of towering sweet corn crops wave to us as we make our way along the coffee-coloured river through northern Shan State and moving east of Hsipaw.
The river’s name, Dokhtawady, is Pali for little river and it is also known as Myitnge in Burmese.
The river begins in the mountainous region in the northernmost part of Shan State and passes through Namtu and Hsipaw before teaming up with the Irrawaddy just south of Mandalay to eventually flow out into Andaman Sea.
We find a boat and driver easily by walking to the boat jetty in Hsipaw. A shop next to the jetty called Moe Ma Khaa provides the service at 25,000Ks for the typical 3-hour trip. They also provide life jackets and you can stock up on water for the day ahead.
We board our long, wooden boat and the young Shan driver maneuvers our vessel away from the jetty with ease and strikes up the motor.
After travelling upstream for about an hour, we arrive at a point where the Dokhtawady curves sharply to the west and is joined by another unnamed river from the north. This smaller, young river of gurgling and gushing clear water flows down a series of wide, low falls before joining the main river. It’s a beautiful spot and can be popular with locals on public holidays.
We get off our boat and from the shade of a mature tree, watch a local family clamber along the falls taking photos and paddling in the pools. The water is refreshingly cool and it’s possible to wade into the river to waist height though beyond that would probably be dangerous due to the strong current.
After lounging in the cool, shady waters for a while, we jump back on our boat and the driver takes us back down stream to a Shan village. I had been skeptical about this part of the trip – were we going to a village to gawk at local villagers trying to go about their daily lives? But the experience surprises me pleasantly.
We dock the boat among farmers unloading armfuls of golden cobs of corn from their boats. A man and woman work in perfect synchronization wearing straw hats and thick swabs of thanaka as protection from the sun.
We wander through green village lanes, designed for nothing bigger than an ox or a motorbike, past homes and gardens of fruit trees and flowering bushes. Stilted wooden Shan houses stand tall and proud as impressive monuments of skilled workmanship. We reach a small snack shop next to a railway line with buffalo grazing along the tracks. It turns out that this is the train station and we are at the next stop after Hsipaw in the direction of Lashio.
Next our boat driver directs us to a traditional monastery. The long wooden buildings look to be a century old and the thick teak posts of the main structure are slightly leaning in their old age. The monks offer us some green tea and back outside we bask in the supreme peace of the surroundings under the shade of a thabyay tree.
Heading back towards our boat, we pass a noodle shop of two tables in the shade under one of the stilted houses. We stop for some bowls of Shan noodles and a chat with the friendly, silver-haired Shan owner. Satisfied by our delicious bowls of peppery, sticky noodles, we reluctantly make our way back to the boat and return to Hsipaw.
The boat jetty in Hsipaw is located at the end of Zay Yat Mahawgani Road past Red Dragon Hotel. The trip takes three to four hours in total. There isn’t much shade along the river and the sun can be very hot even in this northern part of Shan State so hats and sun cream are essential.