The Angry River: A Journey Along Burma’s Pristine Salween

By Patrick Brown 25 August 2015

EASTERN BURMA — In April 2015, photographer Patrick Brown returned to the lower part of the Salween or Thanlwin River.

One of Asia’s great rivers, the Salween presents a placid face as it passes through Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin (Karen) State, close to the end of its 1,750-mile journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the Andaman Sea at Mon State.

In China, where the river’s epic travels begin, it is called the Nu River, or Angry River. As it races through narrow gorges etched from mountains as high as 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), the Nu is often turbulent and terrifying.

“Our personal confrontations with the river defy description. Phrases like ‘gigantic waves’ and ‘bottomless holes’ do not do justice to the Angry River and its demonic forces,” wrote a member of an  American white-water rafting team which explored 80 miles of the river’s length from Gongshan town to below Fugong town in an expedition in Yunnan Province in 1996.

The Nu passes through territory that is home to the Lisu, Nu, Bai and many other ethnic people. At the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a World Heritage Site, it runs close to the upper Yangtze and the Lancang (Mekong) rivers in a region of forests, outstanding biodiversity and dramatic topography.

It enters Myanmar in northeastern Shan State where it becomes the Salween-Thanlwin and cuts through regions where, for decades, wars as well as steep forested mountain terrain have made it virtually inaccessible to outsiders. Brown captured a rare image of the river moving through a deep gorge in a remote part of Shan State on an earlier trip.

For about 120 miles the Salween-Thanlwin forms the border with Thailand before it re-enters Myanmar through Kayah and Kayin states, until  it eventually moves out of its deep gorge into agricultural flatlands and the final stage in Mon State of its long journey.

The Nu-Salween-Thanlwin ran free until the 1990s when China built two relatively small dams near the Nu’s headwaters in Tibet. Plans for a series of large dams farther down were later suspended and their future is unclear.

Plans have also come and gone for hydropower dams on the Salween-Thanlwin. The latest proposed project, the massive 241-meter Mongton dam in southern Shan State, is opposed by Shan, Kayin and other civil society groups who are concerned about the project’s potential impact on people, the environment and the country’s fragile peace process.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.