RANGOON —About a hundred tourists a day are heading across the Rangoon River to Dala, an undeveloped and largely rural area on the other bank, hoping to get a glimpse of the reality of life for most people in Burma.
“Just across the river, we can see the countryside of Burma,” tour guide Thiha Kyaw Win, who often takes tourists to see what lies on the other side, told The Irrawaddy.
Foreigners join the throngs of local commuters who use the ferries across the river, and often hire trishaws to visit sights in Dala. The town of Dala has a market, pagodas, a clock tower and tea shops, while there are fields and lakes to see further afield.
“The roads in Dala are really bad and the houses are poor. The people’s lives in Dala are really different from downtown,” Thiha Kyaw Win said.
“Dala shows how the river affects the lives of the people,” he said.
There are four government-owned ferries that serve the river crossing, cross a total of 46 times each day. Each is named for a Burmese historical hero: Dabin Shwehtee, Anawrahta, Htee Hlaing Shin and Kyansit Thar.
The boat only takes about 10 minutes from downtown’s Pansodan terminal to the Dala jetty and costs 2,000 kyats, or about US$2 for foreigners and 100 kyats for locals.
“We arranged to open the top level [of the ferries] for foreigners starting from five months ago. Most are satisfied as they get to go up where they can take the best photos of river scene,” a manager at Inland Water Transport, who requested anonymity, said.
Reaching the Dala side on a recent visit, a skinny, barefoot man was collecting the plastic bottles and packets along the river bank.
My trishaw driver navigated the dusty and bumpy roads through the wards of Dala to reach Mahar Thingyan Lake. When the lake is opened up to locals between 4 and 5 pm, young girls and boys, as well as old men and women, carried pails to fetch drinking water for their homes.
Around Dala one can hear the sounds of Buddhist ceremonies under way in pagodas and monasteries. But at times the otherwise peaceful atmosphere is broken by something else you don’t get on the other side of the river—motorbikes.
“People here are very kind and you can walk everywhere without worries. You can feel safe and that’s the remarkable thing from this trip,” Karstew, a visitor from Denmark, said.
Most of the houses are built with bamboo and palm leaves, and some people live in huts as little as 4-6 feet wide.
“Most people here do not own land, so people built their homes only with bamboo and toddy-palm leaf which can be easily removed when they get the order to move,” trishaw driver Than Myo said.
Khin Mar, a resident of Dala, said that foreigners are coming to Dala since they want to see the countryside of Burma and they want to understand the “nature” of the Burmese people.
While the rest of Rangoon is speedily developing, there is a sense that Dala is in a different time. When I arrived at the Dala clock tower at 5:30 pm, the clock showed 4:15.
Thiha Kyaw Win, the tour guide, said that foreigners choose to visit Dala since it is the nearest place to Rangoon to see the rural life of the Burmese. It also provides a photogenic view of the sunset over Rangoon and the river, he added.
“Tourists visited Dala more in 2013. From the November 2013, about 100 foreigners are going to Dala every day, which is about 40 percent higher than in early 2013,” the manager of Inland Water Transport said.
He said South Koreans were the most frequent visitors among foreigners, followed by tourists from European countries.
Rumors of a possible bridge from the city have driven land speculation in Dala in recent years. And if that happened, the manager said, development would surely spread there, as it has to other suburbs connected to the city.
For now, however, it remains a poor but charming rural idyll, in comparison to the bustling streets across the water.
“There are no jobs in Dala. There are no factories, no companies and no big shops,” the manager said.