In recent years, downtown Yangon has become a cool place to hang out, its history written on the walls of its picturesque old buildings, its streets filled with hipster cafes and trendy boutiques. Photographers often turn this area into their sets, posing models on trishaws against the backdrop of the Yangon River at sunset. Some people take budget cruises, floating along the river to see the sights or take in some fresh air. Few, however, venture across to the other shore.
A five-minute boat ride away, the river’s south side is far less sophisticated, teeming with motorcycles, teashops blaring music from loudspeakers, and small huts offering betel nut and snacks. Known as Dala Township, this area offers a reminder of a less developed era, despite being just minutes from the heart of the country’s commercial capital.
Since the country embarked on its transition to democracy, former and current government leaders have vowed that a bridge will be built to allow the city to expand and to improve the lives of the people in south Yangon. In February 2017, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein announced a master plan including a Special Economic Zone (SZE) in Dala and a 590-meter, four-lane bridge. According to state media, construction of the Yangon-Dala Bridge will begin in April 2018 and is expected to be complete in 2021. In January, the Ministry of Construction released a video explaining that the bridge will start from the clock tower at Bo Min Yaung Road in Dala and end at the junction of Phone Gyi and Bogyoke Aung San roads.
For the time being, such headlines don’t particularly bother U Manchu, who has been helming ferries to-and-from from Hmaw Sat jetty, one of the 10 jetties in Dala and located across from Lanmaddaw Township.
“We’ll be fine as long as the villages on the riverbank remain,” U Manchu said.
He is one of approximately 400 ferry operators working at the 10 jetties located from Thamada Beach to the Kyaung Su area in Dala Township. Although three commuter ferries provided by JICA ply the waterway, smaller boats like U Manchu’s are still an important means of transport for the large number of commuters who cross the river on a daily basis.
He serves an average of 200 passengers daily; most are blue-collar or office workers, but some are traders moving goods. After Hmaw Sat Ferry Cooperative Ltd gets its 30-percent cut and fuel is paid for, his average daily income is around 8,000-9,000 kyats. That would just about cover the cost of a cocktail at one the overpriced, extravagantly decorated bars across the river.
“Even if they build the bridge, this is an occupation that feeds both my family and my soul,” said U Han Shwe, one of the members of Hmaw Sat Ferry Cooperative.
Hmaw Sat Ferry Cooperative Ltd, one of five such cooperatives, is based in Hmaw Sat ward of Dala Township. Its 38 members operate 31 vessels. As a country that has struggled with the transition to democracy, Myanmar could learn a thing or two from the cooperative’s democratic ways; it elects a new chairman and secretary every five years. Its main responsibility is to assign boats and schedules to members — who take turns operating the service — and to remind boat owners to prepare for maintenance when Inland Water Transport officials show up.
U Kyin Hla, chairman of Hmaw Sat Ferry Cooperative Limited and a veteran ferry captain, reckons there will always be a certain number of people who prefer to cross the river by boat.
He said, “I heard there will be a bus service that will go around Dala in a loop to pick up passengers. The question is how long this bus service will take to get to the other side, when it only takes our ferries five minutes. We can’t predict anything, but the duration of the river crossing is what we should consider.” He concedes that there will likely be a drop in the number of passengers at his jetty, however.
Daw Kyaing, who runs a bike-storage shed near the jetty, plans to continue riding ferries, which she said are the most convenient option for her.
“I’d still use boats to cross the river. They’re closer and faster,” she said.
On the other hand, Ei Phyo Thwe, a Dala resident who crosses the river on a daily basis for her job in Pazundaung Township, is looking forward to traveling via the new bridge. She can’t swim, and lives in fear of a boating accident.
“I’d rather use the bridge. I am always hesitant to take ferries but now I have to, even when it rains, and even when I don’t want to,” Ei Phyo Thwe said as she returned from the city on a full moon day that saw the water level rise to its highest, with choppy swells coming in from the Andaman Sea.
Currently, the jetties along the Yangon River serve as a major mode of transport not only for people from Hmaw Sat ward in Dala Township, but also for people from townships further afield such as Pyawbwe and Kawhmu, as well as small towns in Ayeyarwaddy Region such as Bogalay and Pyapon.
People from these delta region towns usually take the bus to Dala to trade their rice and fish products in Yangon. The Dala-Yangon Bridge would make their journey easier, faster and cheaper.
With a bridge from Yangon’s Central Business District in the works, Dala now has the potential to develop into a major urban center housing businesses and tourist attractions. The Dala riverfront could become a place resembling Bangkok’s Asiatique, offering opportunities for retailers and other small businesses, as well as jobs for its residents. The much-anticipated construction of the bridge will enhance trading activity in nearby townships and improve the lives of Dala’s residents. Consequently, Dala will finally be able to grow to its full potential as a port city situated one bridge away from the country’s commercial capital.
Inevitably, some people will be asked to make sacrifices in the name of development. While the Yangon-Dala Bridge will be beneficial in many ways, ferry captains will definitely face a drop in their daily income.
U Kyin Hla said, “We haven’t thought about what our next step is, but we will figure something out as an alternative to maintain our income.”
For the time being, all the ferry captains and owners can do is to try to save some money, as the bridge construction will take at least three years. While continuing their routine of connecting lives on the two sides of the river, the men at Hmaw Sat Jetty hope their decades-old vocations will be allowed to continue.
“I think our jetty will remain in business,” said U Kyin Hla confidently.