RANGOON — The men and women rushing to catch the ferry at Pansodan Terminal in Rangoon seem too hurried to appreciate the beauty of sunset on the Rangoon River. If they make the last boat, they’ll be back on land before dark, but some must journey farther than Dala, the boat’s destination, to homes that may be more than four hours’ drive away.
Middle-aged laborers carrying lunchboxes mix with elderly street vendors toting baskets and boxes as a jumbled queue forms. A mass of bodies surges to the quay as the ferry readies to take on one last load of passengers for the evening.
The faces of Dala look tired by the end of a day’s work, eyes drifting toward the seagulls that flap above the ferry terminal, or scavenge for food left behind by the boarding passengers. The attire of these maritime commuters is a far cry from the slick business suits increasingly seen in the commercial capital, where foreign prospectors and Burma’s own business class make corporate deals and network in an economy considered one of Asia’s last frontiers.
As nighttime descends, the boat heads south toward Dala, where its passengers’ families await their return.
About 30,000 people make the ferry trip from Dala to Rangoon every day, according to the state-owned Inland Water Transport firm. Most are day laborers and vendors who sell at Kyimyindaing Market, the major wholesale market for fishery products in Rangoon. Others sell boiled corn, eggs and produce in downtown Rangoon. Sprinkled among the ranks are government employees.
Numbering some 130,000 people, the population of Dala Township relies heavily on two government-owned ferries, the Kyan Sit Khar and Anawyahta. Dala borders the Rangoon River to its north and east, Tontay to the west, and Kawhmu in the south. Its location means people who earn their livelihoods in Rangoon but live in Tontay and Kawhmu also depend on the ferries, and are bused in to sleepy Dala before crossing the river to Rangoon. The bus stop near the ferry terminal is easily the busiest and most lively part of town.
Smaller boats can be chartered for commuters in a hurry, but the 100 kyats (US$0.10) ferry ticket is the cheaper—and preferred—option.
Early in the morning, at about 5am, the ferry pushes off from Dala for the first time. It will make the journey 23 times by the time the sun sets and the last of the returnees from Rangoon disembark. Some sellers of fishery products board the early morning ferries to Rangoon after setting off from Tontay by bus at 2am. Compared with four-hour bus rides to Dala, the ferry ride is short—just 10 minutes from point to point.
“I am busy preparing at about 6am to sell watermelon on the Yangon [Rangoon] side. One day’s profit is around 5,000 kyats. Even if there was a bridge from Dala to Yangon, I would take the ferry because it is convenient, not crowded like a bus,” said 32-year-old Ka Yin Ma from Dala.
The ferries are old and as a result, the safety of passengers is by no means assured, but for tens of thousands of people every day, they are a reliable means of transport. Fishery products vendors also tend to find the boat passenger crowd to be more tolerant of the smells emanating from their catch than their bus-riding counterparts.
River-crossing operations will get a major capacity boost next year. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has plans to donate three new ferries in April or May. The boats are currently being assembled in Japan.
“I believe it would be much more convenient, but what about the price? We cannot afford it if the price for the ferry goes up,” said Kit Kit, who sells cold water near the riverbank on the Rangoon side.
The price has not been determined yet, but will be within the means of Dala’s commuters, said Myo Naing, assistant general manager of the Inland Water Transport, a state enterprise housed under the Ministry of Transport.
The 200-feet-long by 150-feet-wide boats will be able to carry 500 to 600 passengers. JICA’s support will also include upgrades to the port on the Dala side.
However, Aung Min, a day laborer at construction sites in Rangoon, said a bridge from Dala to the city of 5 million would be preferable, both in terms of convenience and the development prospects that a road link would provide. Other townships near Rangoon, such as Thanlyin and Hlaing Tharyar, are linked with the commercial capital by bridges and are noticeably more developed than pastoral Dala.
“Dala is like a village compared to Thanlyin and Hlaing Tharyar, where the communities have improved ahead of Dala, even though Dala has been here for many years,” Aung Min said.
A proposal from the South Korean government to build a Rangoon-Dala bridge was postponed by the government in September amid reports of a tenfold increase in land price in Dala since talks of the bridge emerged.
President’s Office Minister Soe Thein seemed to indicate at the time that a bridge would not threaten the brisk trade in Dala ferry passengers—nor bring economic development—any time soon.
In ancient times, Dala was ruled alternately by ethnic Burmans and Mons, and was the scene of battles between the two powerful kingdoms. Nowadays, for the 200,000 people that live in the Dala-Tontay-Kawhmu region, life is much different than in the times of territorial warfare, but there is an equally notable difference between the lives they lead here and the scene across the river, where new construction projects abound and more cars crowd the streets every day.
The seagulls that flock the Rangoon River are interspersed with crows as the ferry grows closer and closer to the Rangoon side. And in the contrast between the crows’ black feathers and the water birds’ white, a parallel, perhaps, to the starkly different realities that the river has created.