On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part I: Yangon (Rangoon) and Dala, Myanmar (Burma). A Tale of Two Cities.

by Owen James Burke

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Yangon (Rangoon), seen from Dala (Dalla). Photo: Owen James Burke.

I flew to Myanmar (Burma) to meet a group of seminomadic sea-dwelling peoples around the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea collectively known as “sea gypsies”. But that didn’t get off to a great start. First, I was hung up in Yangon, and what I encountered there was a far grimmer, more harrowing reality than the one I’d set out to find.

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The ferry terminal in Yangon. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I landed in Yangon (as the capital city of Rangoon is now known to modern-day, militarized “Myanmar”), during a monsoon where people were sitting in plastic chairs along the sidewalk dining in a river of mud and street grit, and despite recent large-scale urban development, the streets—even in the town center—were dismally dark by any city’s standard.

I must have spent three hours in a taxi on the way home from the airport, otherwise a 25 minute jaunt across the city.

After finding a hotel, I dried off and began to wander the streets, ankle deep in mud, runoff and grit. Taking each step, I felt as good as blind. High-rise buildings may have been going up, but it seemed like the sidewalks hadn’t changed since Orwell was sipping and spilling gin and tonics on them.

I circled a few blocks, wandered down dark alleys, and finally ordered some deep-fried samosa-like parcels before turning back for the hotel room. I was trying to take photographs, but it was just too dark and wet, and I got fed up with trying to keep my camera dry.

Back in my blacked out room, I could hear the monsoon and her winds bellowing outside. All night long and into the morning, I was jarred awake by whistling bursts of air and wobbling doors.

Dazed, and now on two days of particularly little sleep, I had to get to the customs office in Yangon to request access to the restricted Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago. This set of some 800 islands in the Andaman Sea was where sea-going people of several origins and beliefs were living in a (largely) landless, nationless modern-day conundrum, with their way of life–and maybe even their existence itself–sits in limbo.

But the Andaman sea gypsies, however, are not the reason the government restricts access to the archipelago. The real purpose is that some of the islands are occupied by the military, which seems to more or less tolerate the sea gypsies, if only to extort and exploit them as an afterthought.

Today, as modernity closes in and currency becomes necessary for the sea gypsy to survive, they find themselves at the mercy of whomever they encounter, exchanging precious seafood–increasingly harder to get–for dry goods and gasoline (and healthcare, in certain circumstances).

Many Andaman sea gypsies have ancestral roots in the Middle East and even East Africa, dating more than 60,000 years back to the African diaspora. (The Sentinelese, for example, about whom the outside world still knows precious little—they kill almost anyone who nears their island.)

The sea gypsies can be an elusive people, keeping as little contact with the outside world as possible. In part, it’s this isolation that has helped them develop–or evolve–into some of the most adept waterpersons on the planet. The Moken, for example–one of the more well-known groups of sea gypsies with whom I was hoping to meet–have specialized eyes with what one scientist calls an “accommodative response” to underwater blurriness that inhibits others from being able to see (well) underwater. From an early age, children gain muscular control over their eyes so that they can focus underwater and seek out fish and shellfish. They also dive to depths of around 90 feet with no fins, goggles or mask, holding their breaths for several minutes at a time.

In the waters to the south around Malaysia and Indonesia, the Bajau Lau, another sea gypsy or sea nomad population, are reported to intentionally bursts children’s eardrums shortly after birth. While the eardrums are made to heal, of course, this ritual is said to allow them to dive deeper.

These were the kind of phenomena I wanted to witness firsthand, knowing that they were rapidly disappearing along with an entire way of life, partly out of my own fascination, but also in hopes of helping to preserve these magnificent people and their tradition.

I shuffled down the stairs and out into the street, where a group of teenagers waved me over to join them at their local breakfast nook. They insisted I sit down and join them, and I was happy to oblige.

They ordered for me, for which I was grateful—I’m not a picky eater, and my palate had not yet been offended in Burma.

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Breakfast in Yangon. Photo: Owen James Burke.

The hawker placed a bowl of noodles filled with fresh green peppers, pearl onions and a prawn or two, generously garnished with coriander. It turned out to be about the best damn breakfast I’ve ever eaten, and for less than fifty cents (USD) at that.

I continued on to the customs office where I was immediately denied permission to visit the islands, among the reasons cited being that it was monsoon season and at any moment a gale could pick up and send “10-meter” waves—large enough to swamp about any wooden vessel I might have hired to take me on the 6-8-hour passage.

I replied that that was exactly the reason why I wanted to go. I was then promptly shown to the door with not even a smile.

But it was no matter; I’d find a way out there, and now I’d do it without having to pay their silly permission fees.

I went into a travel agency and booked a ticket on the next flight south to Dawei, a busier port city where the travel agent suggested I might find someone willing to take me to the islands, for the right price of course, though she obstinately insisted that I not go. “Come back in six months,” she said, “weather will be good.” That wasn’t an option.

After settling up with her, I took a stroll down to the river, a 20 minute walk during the course of which I must have had three separate deluges pass overhead. The trick with monsoon season in balmy southeast Asia is staying dry. This is easier said than done. When it’s 95 degrees fahrenheit, the last thing you want is a rain jacket insulating your body heat. But let yourself get wet, and you may never dry. That’s when things start to get a little gamey . . .


A market at the ferry terminal in Yangon. Photo: Owen James Burke.

A quick tool around the market by the riverside produced a pair outstanding mangos, but little else of great interest. I wandered along the riverbank, finding nothing but one massive industrial complex after another: mega commercial fishing and transfer (or refrigeration) boats, fuel tankers and storage facilities. I turned back around for the pedestrian crossing and the  over the road.

Halfway across the bridge, a young man of about 20 approached me and I tried to blow him off, but he was insistent upon speaking with me.

Seeing as how I hadn’t had much of a chance to use my mother tongue—or any other tongue apart from my cursory Mandarin Chinese which was serving me better than English—for the past 24 hours, I gave in and struck up a conversation.

“Your English is good,” was the first thing I said to him. And it was. “Why are you out on the street?” I asked.

He just smiled. “Have you been across the river yet?”

“No,” I answered.

“Let’s go. I’ll take you. You don’t have to pay me.” He explained that he just wanted to practice English.

I told him I liked his hat, and he said that if we went across the river, he knew where to buy one just like it.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Min Thu, as my new guide called himself, explained to me that the large fishing village of Dala had gone largely ignored in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which swept through the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 and left more than 138,000 dead. The entire place had been inundated with not only tidal surges from ocean swell but runoff from Yangon, evidence of which is still blatantly visible. To this day, there remains little if any plumbing (I saw none), and many dwellings are full of black mold and rot.

I fixed my eyes across at Dala from the road overpass we were standing on and saw nothing but wooden fishing trawlers lining the bank, tracing them upriver until they faded into the distant yellow haze that blankets the region and gives it its famous light, the light for which photographers travel around the world to see reflected off of hot air balloons and gilded Buddhist temples. Now, for me, it was illuminating the great dichotomy of the Sunset Kingdom.


A tug churns its way east, down the Yangon River, with Dala to starboard. Photo: Owen James Burke.

As far as I could see, the only impact Yangon’s perpetual skyward progression had across the river in Dala was the hollow sound of industrial drudgery and the lingering cloud of dust and fumes that came along with it, which only dissipated momentarily during and shortly after each monsoon deluge. Otherwise, I was coming to learn, you were coated in it.

Min Thu was still looking at me, waiting for an answer.

I told him I wasn’t sure, and that I had no money—though never absolute, this is one way to try to shake swindlers off your shoulder.

He assured me it wouldn’t cost too much, and that he’d be happy just to join me. After some time, I felt like I had no choice but to visit the place.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said.

“Let me take your bag,” he said.

“No, I’ll carry it,” I replied. He was being polite, but you can never be sure.

“No, it’s okay. Don’t worry, I don’t want your money.” He finally won out. I took out the valuables—camera bag, wallet and passport. If he was going to run off with my salty old bag and a couple changes of clothes so be it.


Yangon’s waterfront, as seen from the Yangon River. Photo: Owen James Burke.

We hopped aboard and as the ferry pulled away, I was consumed by the vast drone of progress under an skyline defined by cranes, drills, dredges, barges and bridges.

My guide continued preparing me for a sad reality which I ultimately had no way of grasping until the ferry deposited us at the dock on the far bank, where the starched shirts, cell phones and tourists disappeared along with any hope of progress. It was a continual nightmare unfolding daily for those living across the river. Talk about a tale of two cities.


Things looked a little different in Dala on the other side of the Yangon (or Hlaing) River–about a hundred years different. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Traditional inshore sailing vessels lie in the mud at low tide beside an offshore boat lined up for repair as children take brief respite in the river and the cooling rain before the sun breaks through the clouds again. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Of the 80,000 people who live in Dala, Min Thu tells me 120 were reported dead after the cyclone, though the true number of casualties may be much higher than reported. However, it wasn’t so much the loss of life, says my guide, whose father perished during the flood, as the damages in the aftermath, which cost the region somewhere along the lines of $10 billion USD.


A common household at the mouth of the Dala River, just south of where it meets the Yangon River.Garbage was ubiquitous all throughout the town, and especially in the canal. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Fishing boats and houses were swamped, rice fields and farms tarnished with salt, and almost a decade later, the people of Dala are having a time and a half shoring up the pieces and making ends meet.


Dala–one short kilometer away and a hundred years behind Yangon. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Fortunately, although they may not be the freediving anomalies their neighbors the sea gypsies are said to be, fishermen from Dala are legendary in their own right.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

There was more than enough seafood going around the village, and quite the variety, too.


It isn’t fish or protein that they lack, but rice, so I was told by the UNICEF relief office, which as far as I could tell was nothing but the basement of a local household, filled with 50-pound sacks of rice which you could purchase for the community for about $15 a piece. I couldn’t figure out whether the rice would be evenly distributed, and the only thing remaining of UNICEF in Dala–at least that I saw–was a tattered banner. Photo: Owen James Burke.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Some children, most of whom would be in school across the way in Yangon, were working on boats, preparing fish for market, running errands on bikes or playing on soccer fields–there was neither the time nor the money for any formal education for many families in Dala.


Photos: Owen James Burke.

Passing by one muddy game, we noticed the children come to a stop. There’d been an interruption: a giant, perhaps 8-foot-long snake had made the mistake of wandering across the field, and several of the children were running after it.  One of the boys emerged with the beast hanging limply around his neck.


Lunch in Dala. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I asked Min Thu to find out if they were going to eat it. The boy held out the snake and said “your lunch.” He sent it over to the local bar/restaurant to be cooked up for us later.

Min Thu insisted that we hire two bikes to take us around so that he could give me the tour. I suggested we walk instead, but he said it was too far. We couldn’t rent bikes either. How much would this cost? My guide assured me that it would not be much—whatever I could give would suffice. Well, I’d come this far. Why not?

We hopped into the passenger’s seats while our drivers pedaled us down the road, through the jungle, in 95-degree heat. Not for the faint of heart.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

Pulling into the center of town, there were several temples, shrines, ornate cemeteries and gilded pine nut trees lining the road.

We came to a stop at a betel nut stand, where my guide and both drivers were in dire need of their fix.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

I’d tried chewing betel nuts before—a southeast Asian fixture, not unlike coca leaves in South America. While I did enjoy the crunchy texture and bright fresh vegetable flavor at first, I found that it left a highly disagreeable aftertaste which I could not get rid of; it also left me uncomfortably buzzed, in a hot-and-bothered kind of way, which is not how you want to feel in the heat and humidity of southeast Asia during summer.

The funny thing about betel nut is that every hawker has their special recipe, and every chewer their preferred stand to which they remain vehemently loyal.

I counted 13 ingredients piled into each of these acorn-like nuts, wrapped into the leaves of the areca (or betel nut) palm tree. One of the additives I was able to identify was anise, which did do something to curb the foul taste, but not much. Another component was a white powdery substance, which having encountered something similar if not the same in Taiwan, I gathered must have been ephedrine.


My guide, Min Thu, with a face full of betel nut. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I was only made certain of this when, a minute after being convinced to try this rendition, I felt the juices running into my gums, and not much else. It was the same sensation I recall experiencing as a kid on the baseball field the first and only time I tried chewing tobacco. Only this time, I had the good sense to eject the mysterious mulch of organic and not-so-organic matter from my gob before I collapsed onto the ground and began projectile vomiting.

Dizzy, lightheaded and crosseyed, we continued on.

As we strolled through rice fields, children came chasing after us with flowers. We let them catch up and exchanged small gifts and funny faces.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

It was flooring. Here were these small children living in what some might call abject poverty, and all they wanted to do was bring presents and have a laugh.

Some of their parents, through desperation, were a little more demanding, and rightly so—it meant their survival.


A home amidst the flooded rice fields of outer Dala. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Once, in passing, I heard someone say “You can’t email a shoeshine boy,” and that may be true in some places, but in Yangon, even banana salesmen have smartphones.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

There are new cars, blaring televisions and IT services everywhere. In short, foreign investors, largely from neighboring China, are shooting the moon. Hotels are skyrocketing and money is beginning to pass through Yangon’s jangled old streets.


Photo: Owen James Burke.

I couldn’t help but recognize the colossal disparity between the two cities. Watching progress flourish in one and merely flank the other, I was feeling philanthropic, which, though heartening, is not always noble.

Unfortunately—and this is an easy mistake—expressing this sentiment is difficult to do without drawing unwanted attention.

We walked into a restaurant here a couple of tables of men were sitting, eating, and drinking beer and tea.

I purchased a few plates of food—one of which was our snake, battered, fried and dished out with coriander and lemon—and invite the other tables to join us. I also begged the waiters, young boys of about 12 or 13, to join the feast. After politely declining two or three times I convinced them to take a seat.

I chatted with each of them as much as we could, and one happened to be a commercial fishermen, well-traveled and well-versed in English.


Talking story and sharing a few laughs over fried snake, fish and a couple of beers. Photo: Owen James Burke.

We finished eating and when I went to foot the bill—yes, this was my grand mistake—more than a few eyebrows rose.

Dinner for four ran something like $10 USD, but that’s big bucks here.

I kept my wallet hidden, but I think word was already out.

We hitched a ride back on the bikes—a lazy 15-20 minute pedal over flat ground. We stopped off at yet another temple, maybe the 3rd or 4th by now, and by the time we arrived back at the ferry dock, it was getting dark.

Regretfully, so had the moods of our bike peddlers. They demanded $150 USD each for our little 2.5-hour tour, which included dinner and beer, and at least an hour and a half of leisurely time.

Desperation and greed go hand in hand, I remember muttering to myself. I wasn’t surprised, but that’s not to say that I was prepared, either.

When I refused their request, they threatened to bring me to the police, and when I called their bluff—there was no way the police would side with them—they grew even more furious. Whoops.

I stuffed the equivalent of $30-40 USD into each of their hands and turned to walk away. As I did, they came after me, grabbed my shoulder and stuffed the money I’d given them back into my hand, disappointed, trying to act insulted. I returned it to their palms and continued down the gangway. Yet again, I heard heavy footsteps behind me and turned to be sure it wasn’t paranoia setting in. No such luck, they were after me.

Looking back down the gangway, the ferry had already cast off and it was beginning to pull away.

Reaching the edge of the dock, I had a decision to make, one which I thought only the James Bonds of the world would be forced to address.

Three to five feet of a dark, murky, muddy, fetid, swollen river lay between my rubber thongs and safety. It wasn’t a difficult leap, but it was a critically unforgiving one.

I made the gap cleanly, and with little effort, turning around just in time to catch my defeated pursuers faces fade into darkness. This was bittersweet, of course; I felt for these people, and I wanted to help them, but I wasn’t willing to let myself be mugged in order to do so.

Sitting down on a plastic chair and watching the lights of Yangon draw nearer, I watched a ferry deckhand sweep the entire deck of the barge before pushing all of the gathered rubbish over the side and into the river.

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A fuzzy screenshot of rubbish going off the deck of the ferry, taken on my iPhone. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I was disturbed, if not perturbed, naturally, but this feeling was what led me to the important realization that money, in whatever form, is almost certainly never a substitute for education.

I was left inundated by guilt and unanswerable questions. Could the continent’s land and sea continue to support the weight of its multi-billion people – and counting? Will this small, choked stretch of river keep producing enough fish to feed the 80,000 in Dala, let alone the 5.5 million in Yangon?

Reaching the ferry terminal back in Yangon–which now suddenly felt like metropolis, and a haven of sorts, I was sickened, mostly by myself for being so foolish to think that buying a few plates of food and drinks was even remotely the kind of gesture that could improve someone’s life in any real way. If anything, it may as well have been a slap in the face.

I’d seen some of the worst displays of humanity I’d ever witnessed. Right was wrong, up was down, and there was no one and nothing to blame but humanity itself. I would be up all night dwelling on it, but I would be back on task to meet the sea gypsies the next day, or so I’d hoped. . . .


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