September 20, 2017

Kyauktwin Thuye: the Daredevil of the First Defile

The Burma Teak
In the past, Myanmar was famous for the best quality teak wood in the world. It was very popular among the wealthy and aristocratic Westerners, especially the British. Westerners honoured our teak wood by calling it the Burma Teak or the Golden Teak. They valued that wood so much that they would not hesitate to boast to the visitors, a piece of Burma Teak furniture among their prized possessions. Even labels that read “Burma Teak” are fixed on walls or floorings in some of their homes.
We used to be the largest producer of the best quality teak wood and other fine quality timbers in the world since the days of our Kings. Teak had played an important role in our history. It even provided the British with an excuse to annex our country. Under the British rule, the Burma Teak became more glorified. It was in high demand in most foreign countries. While their demands were being met, the teak forests were never in danger of depletion due to systematic conservations.
Those situations continued to exist well after we gained Independence, thanks to the proper conservations carried out by our forest department with the cooperations of other departments to prevent illegal loggings. However, lately, the glorious days of the famous Burma Teak had waned. According to a very distressful news, few months ago, our country was being listed in the third position behind the Amazons and Indonesia as the most forest-depleted region.
That was really regretful indeed. Nearly four decades ago I had an opportunity to witness, with my own eyes, the extent of our teak forests stretching for miles and miles on both sides of the Ayeyarwady River in her upper reaches. The distant mountains were densely covered with forests as we sailed up to Bhamo from Mandalay. As it was in the month of July, during the flowering season of the teak, almost the entire forest canopy was swathed in buff colour—the distinct colour of the teak flowers. Those awesome and breathtaking sights are still etched in my memory and thus the bad news struck me with regret.
However, I found some solace recently, in the news of the official banning of logging  in the Bago region. I had been ardently advocating for the banning of logging and to curb illegal extractions in many of my articles. Also as the reforestations are being undertaken since many years ago, the future of our forests are a bit brighter. Although it may take a long time to be back to the previous conditions, those moves are laudable. With the participations of the authorities concerned and the public at large, we would definitely be able to restore the old  glory of our Burma Teak. I hope the logging bans would be extended to other areas too.

Satellite image of the First Defile.

The Kyauktwin Thuye
Here, I would like to narrate a very interesting story of the legendary Kyauktwin Thuye, who had played an important role in promoting the popularity of our world-famous Burma Teak. His name was U Pyar Gyi. As a teenager he left home in search of work and ended up becoming a rafts-man on the Ayeyarwady River. He was very skilled in handling timber rafts through the treacherous waters of the First Defile, north of Bhamo, locally known as the Kyauktwin. The defile being a very narrow gorge that cuts through a mountain range, it resembles a hole in the rock. His dearh-defying feat inside the First Defile earned him the nick name, “The Kyauktwin Thuye”.
It was sometime around 1955, at a place called Sinbo, on the right bank of the Ayeyarwady, only a few miles upriver from the upper entrance to the First Defile. (The directions are customarily reckoned on a river by facing downstream and the right hand side is the right bank, while the opposite is the left bank.) U Pyar Gyi, the Phaung thu gyi, in-charge of the timber raft, and his crews were putting the finishing touches to the teak raft they were assembling, to be ready to float down to Rangoon at the end of the monsoons, from where the timber logs will be exported.
One day in July that year, U Pyar Gyi was unexpectedly summoned to report to the Commissioner of the Forest Department, who was in Myitkyina at that time. As soon as he arrived at the Myitkyina District Forest Department, he was ushered into the presence of the Commissioner. The latter asked whether he could float a timber raft through the First Defile.
He answered he had been doing it all along and that wouldn’t be a problem. However, when the Commissioner told him it was to be done in a few days’ time, he was shocked. He replied it wouldn’t be possible during the monsoons as the conditions inside the defile would be very dangerous and the raft would surely be destroyed.
The Commissioner was satisfied with the answer. He told the veteran rafts-man, that was what he had in mind and explained his intentions of making a documentary film to promote the sales of the Burma Teak in foreign countries. He wanted to show the world how difficult and dangerous it was to extract the teak. On hearing the desire of his superior, U Pyar Gyi gallantly replied: if that was what the Commissioner wanted, he wouldn’t mind risking his life, but he couldn’t gurantee for the participation of his crews. He added that just to crash the raft wouldn’t need plenty men and volunteered to go at it alone if necessary.
Back in Sinbo, U Pyar Gyi immediately gathered his crews and told them of the task assigned to him. He said he didn’t want to force them to go along with him, but he only want volunteers. There was none. He said he could understand their decisions and that he had no hard feelings towards them.
On the eve of the epic adventure he treated his crews to a farewell dinner. After dinner, U Pyar Gyi instructed his men to go to bed early and at dawn the next day to leave the raft and cut loose the mooring lines that held the raft to the shore and push it into the river current. Though the crews were drunk, their eyes welled up with tears on hearing their master’s words. At that moment, one man stepped forward and told U Pyar Gyi, “If you, who is worth a Kyat don’t mind to risk your life, why should I, worth only five Pyas be afraid to go along with you”. U Pyar Gyi didn’t take him seriously, and told him to go to bed adding that if he was still willing to go along when he woke up the next morning he should remain on the raft when the others leave.
Early the next day, all the crews except the man, whose name was (U) Nyo Gyi, left the raft. On U Pyar Gyi’s orders, his men cut the mooring lines and pushed the raft away until it was caught by the current. The raft gradually gathered speed and was, in no time, racing towards the entrance to the First Defile. As there was nothing for them to do or could do, the two men sat on the last section of the long raft, which was made up of eight sections. They were calmly smoking and chatting to while away the time. Before long, the raft started humping and sacking as it neared the entrance, which was very narrow and thus the rushing water funneling through it caused the turbulences.
Once inside the Defile, the conditions became more ferocious as there were large whirlpools everywhere. By then, the long raft was wriggling, writhing, creaking and groaning, making it difficult for the two men to remain seated. Lest they be tossed off the bouncing raft they lied face down on the raft and clung to the cane twines that bound the large logs together. They were oblivious to the surroundings as they were desperately clinging onto the raft for their dear lives. Then all of a sudden there was a loud ear-splitting noise that sounded like a thunderbolt.
When he looked to the front, U Pyar Gyi knew straight away what had happened. The raft had crashed onto the rocky surface on the right side bank at a bend. According to his descriptions, the large logs were flying off in all directions like match sticks as one section of the raft after another crashed. The two men jumped off the raft in time and miraculously survived after a long ordeal in the turbulent waters, strewn with jagged rocks.
I had an opportunity to meet him in 1978, and learned firsthand, about that daring feat. At that time he was in his seventies and living in Bhamo. By now he may have passed on. May his soul rest in peace. In conclusion, I would like to urge the new generations, both the government employees and civilians, especially the business people alike, to be mindful of the endeavours, sacrifices, and the risks that your predecessors had taken. They had gone to the extremes, to promote the glory of The Burma Teak. So, now it’s the new generations’ turn and responsibility to uphold the glory of our national treasure—The Burma Teak


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