Myanmar River Cruises
One of the rivers of Myanmar, Irrawaddy, flows 2000km and begins and ends within one country, giving it life, witnessing its history and bringing together the people of the far north to the southerners living in delta lands.
In these times of globalization, one thing is unchanged about this mighty river: the lives of the river people and those of villages on its banks. Cityscapes may change from old houses to high rises, towns may become fast paced and modern, but life on the river remains the same as it was centuries ago.
The Irrawaddy has its birthplace the confluence about 43km north of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State. Mai Kha River from the East and Mali Kha from the West, the two rivers that came down from the snowy Himalayas, join their waters in a spot of spectacular beauty. Kachin legends say that the Great Spirit of the world poured water from a gold cup held in each hand, and Mai Kha which flowed from his right is the male river, wide, shallow, swift flowing and chuckling happily as he passes over river stones. The Mali Kha, poured from the left, is his sister. She has hidden depths shadowed with high cliffs and tall thick jungles. She is silent, mysterious, and dangerous.
Born as they were from gold cups, both rivers give up gold in powder or nugget form. Many gold panners stake out claims o the sandy banks, sleeping in small make shift huts, living off the abundant fish and wild shoots and vegetables from the forests. The waters of these upper reaches from the confluence up to the town of Bhamo are crystal clear and blue, flowing with white crested waves pass the rugged rocks of the First Gorge. During the onset of the monsoon when the melted snows of the Himalayas swell the river to dangerous depths, it is said that the river roars through this First Gorge with the might of a hundred tigers. Bhamo is a trading post that since a thousand years has been a gateway to the overland route to China. Its importance in trade has been the cause of many wars, among them the invasion of the British into Myanmar that ended with total annexing of the country in 1885.
After Bhamo there is the Second Gorge, but here the river is calm and not too narrow. A high cliff towers over a turn in the river, looming up majestically over the small boats and rafts floating by. On this part of the river, the water is not too deep, and boats are hollowed from whole logs or small rafts made of bamboo. Indeed, rafts made up of less then a dozen bamboo poles are often seen with the one passenger lying back and humming a tune to ease the loneliness of his journey. In these upper reaches of the river, dolphins help the fishermen with their work by driving schools of fish into the nets, and men and dolphin have secured an affectionate relationship through generations.
After visit Bhamo
Just before the Third Gorge, the river passes by Tagaung, a town famous in legends and history as the probable capital of the earliest kingdom in Myanmar. In a country of such deep traditions as Myanmar, folklore holds more sway then scientific historical proof. When legends tell of a Naga, a dragon who could take human form and who was lover to a beautiful queen, and on whose death the queen made a jacket from his skin and a hairpin from his bones, who cares what archaeological proof says? There are many ancient ruined temples in Tagaung and stories of plentiful and harmless snakes, which are smaller cousins of dragons. Soon the thick jungles and isolated huts on high banks are left behind as the river widens and flows pass flat farmland and small villages. As the river widens it creates wide expanses of sandbanks, where farmers eagerly grow crops such as onions. They say that no onion is sweeter then that grown in the silt of the Irrawaddy.
A book written in the1930 by an Irishman Major Raven-Hart, who canoed down the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina right down to the capital Yangon, described the life along the river in words that are still as accurate today as they were seventy years ago:
“Even at the villages where we did not tie up, our passing was an excitement: men and women bathing stood to watch us, boys washing their skirts waved them in salute, naked urchins sliding down the banks yelled and waved and pretended to be scared of our wash, water0buffaloes really were scared and gave their pygmy guardians a chance to show their authority (and to see a child of six dragooning one of these antediluvian monsters weighing a ton or so almost makes one proud to be human). All the life of the riverside village is on the bank of an evening: everyone bathes at least once a day, and skirts are changed and washed at every bathe, and smaller children with no skirts to worry about swim as soon as they can walk or sooner, and still smaller ones are brought down to be gurglingly dipped, astride the hip of a not-much-larger brother or sister.”
Gradually the life on the river becomes busier as boats big and small carry goods and travelers and rafts of teak logs and bamboo flow with the current. Huge glazed pots lashed together form a different type of river craft altogether. They all come complete with a hut or two for the rafters to sleep and cook. Sometimes their pet dogs might even join them for the trip.
Teak river rover
Glazed ware is used to store oil or pickled fish or bathing water, and Kyaut Myaung, a huge production centre just after the end of the Third Gorge. The glazed ware of the town is famous, sent to all ports downstream during pagoda festival season, which is from October to May of the next year. The glazes are made from by-products of silver mines, added to river silt. The traditional colors are deep dark browns, lustrous greens and creamy yellows.
Pottery making at Yandabo village
Terracotta wares have a longer history then glazed wares. Fine samples have been unearthed from ancient city sites two thousand years old. Turned on a wheel, these excavated pots once used for cooking, storage and as burial urns have elegant shapes and designs. The type of potter’s wheel used remained the same all these years, as did the way that the clay is worked. Silt from the generous Irrawaddy and white or red clay pounded to a fine powder is mix in age-old proportions, and worked with hands and feet to smoothness. The potter’s wheel, as seen in the tiny, sleepy little village of Yandabo, is set on a stake driven into the bottom of a shallow pit dug in the ground. The wheel is turned by one hand while the other works on shaping the pot. If two hands are needed, someone will turn the wheel by standing next to it and using a foot to spin it, or else a string tied to the wheel can be pulled by someone sitting at a distance, leisurely smoking a cheroot.
For cooking rice, there is never a more pleasant aroma then when it is cooked in a clay pot. Drinking water in a terracotta pot seeps and mists on the exterior surface, which the breeze catches and chill. This, in turn keeps the water inside cool, with a freshness that villagers prefer to iced water. The villages of Theingon are places neither special nor important, but they are symbolic of all the rural villages in Myanmar. The people are hard working, tending to their fields, plots and small chicken coops all day under the harsh tropical sun.
A villager’s life is not easy, but he shares his affection and humor with his neighbors, and his few entertainments in life are the annual pagoda festivals, or, in bigger villages, the weekly movie at the video ‘theatre’. Evenings are spent courting girls who walk to and from the river carrying water in pots on their heads. Other evenings the young lads may share a drink of toddy wine with the guys, right under the toddy palms in the village version of the corner pub. If the girls are weaving or spinning by moonlight, that is another chance to go around and sweet-talk them, discreetly chaperoned by her mother sitting at a distance but with eyes and ears wide open.
Village life along Ayeyarwaddy River
Living far from big cities, the villagers’ one reason to visit these crowded places they cannot stand is to worship at the great pagodas like the Shwedagon of Yangon or the Maha Muni of Mandalay.
Mandalay today is a modern city with many ancient cites, and places where the best craftsmen in the country continue to make things in the way their great grandfathers did. The Maha Muni Pagoda enshrines a cast bronze image of the Buddha brought over the mountain ranges of the west in 1782. The 4m-high image has so often been gilded that the torso has lost all proportions. Only the serene face remains unchanged, polished and washed and even the teeth, actually the lips, brushed every dawn at 4a.m.with great ceremony by the pagoda trustees.
The environs of Mandalay offer endless sights, beautiful scenery and enchanting temples. The Irrawaddy, however, flows on its path to Bagan, with its two thousand temples of the 11th and 12th century, left from the original four thousand. The pains of Bagan are dotted with the temples, and in the far distance looms the crest of Mount Popa, abode of the Nat, or Spirits. Since King Anawrahta (1044-1077) of Bagan first gave full support to Buddhism and helped it prosper over the land, there was Spirit worship, which he could not entirely stamp out. Buddhism is a hard philosophy to live by with one entirely responsible for one’s actions, good or bad, without any help from any other being. Anawrahta knew that at least for the uneducated or the unwise, he had to let them believe in favours they can get from Spirits. The Nat mediums also take care not to be antagonistic of Buddhism; on the contrary they insist that the Spirits, as all good Buddhists aspire, wish to end their cycle of rebirths, or in their case the state of limbo, and enter Nirvana. Meanwhile, remain in limbo they must, to be ‘made happy’ with festivals celebrated in their honour with loud music, dance, food and drink.
Down river from Bagan, there are other places of interest such as “Sale” a small town with exquisite old monasteries. The all-teak Yoke Sone Monastery is famous for the traditional architecture and carvings. The craftsmen of a hundred years ago had shown their skill to perfection with mythological creatures, celestials and scenes of everyday life carved on walls and balustrades of the monastery. The town also boasts of lovely colonial-style residences.
Next port-of-call is Magwe which is famous for the Mya Thalun Pagoda overlooking the river, its spire of gold shining like a beacon. Magwe is a typically conservative town, with many temples, monasteries and hermitages.
Minhla has a brick fort built by two Italians during the 19th century, in an effort to block the British invasion to Upper Myanmar. However, the heavy artillery of the British was too strong for the weapons of the Myanmar Royal armies. The hill in Gwechaung offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
Thayet Myo was once a colonial outpost, and has the first golf course ever to be built in Myanmar. The locals of a hundred years ago must have been amazed to see men with long sticks chasing after a little white ball. The town is small and charming, and seems lost in time.
The roots of Myanmar civilisation is to be found very near Pyay or Prome as it was called by the British. The ancient city site Srikhetera was once the seat of the Pyu kingdom, ancestors of the Bama (Burmese) race. The Pyu civilization flourished from the 2nd century to the 9th, and ended when invaders from Nan Cha’o, (present-day Yunnan) destroyed the city and conscripted thousands into their armies. Those who fled settled up-river and later on merged with another race that came from Kyaukse, just south of present-day Mandalay, and they were the first people of the great Bagan kingdom.
Now, the archaeological site in Hmawza continues to give up remnants of the lost kingdom in the form of religious artifacts, pottery shards, exquisitely crafted precious metal and intricate beads, all to be seen in a small on-site museum. The pagodas and temples there are the oldest in the country.
The Irrawaddy River flows placidly past all these wonders. It has seen it all. It has witnessed the wars of mighty kings striving to build their empires or to build up civil societies. It has seen heartbreak, happiness, life and death. With a grandeur and dignity befitting a river that moves to its own will, the Irrawaddy rushes past the towns of central Myanmar and through the delta in nine rivulets, pouring its endless streams of waters into the Andaman Sea.
Road To Mandalay
Discover the mysteries of the ancient and breathtaking cities along the shores of the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar aboard the Road To Mandalay, a deluxe river cruise from the creators of the Eastern & Oriental Express.
The Road To Mandalay sails the legendary river between Mandalay and Bagan offering travelers 3-, 4- and 7- night cruises*. Beautifully appointed throughout, this deluxe cruiser accommodates 120 passengers in spacious air-conditioned cabins with full unsuited facilities, and provides a superior level of service with sumptuous dining and local entertainment onboard.
The RV Pandaw and other 5 similar so called “class P” design vessels was commissioned after the end of the Second World War by the Inland Water Transport Board of the Union of Burma government with the technical expertise of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company at that time acting as Agents to the I.W.T Board.
Rv Pandaw was built in Scotland on the Clyde by the famous ships builder Yarrow & Co on 1947 with the same design of the pre-war Quarter Wheeler steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. After being boarded up in order to protect her from the sea waves, she left Scotland for the delivery voyage to Burma on 1950. On the 12th January 1951 she started to serve the Inland Water Transport (Irrawaddy Flotilla was nationalized on the 1st of June 1948) on the route Mandalay-Bhamo for both cargo and passengers transportation. In the 1998 she was converted into a 16 cabins luxurious river cruise vessel by the revived Irrawaddy Flotilla Company founded by the Historian Mr.Paul Strachan. IFC has operated the vessel in the rivers of Myanmar for 5 years until 2003 in the second half of the 2003 Interconnection Co. Ltd signed the charter agreement with IWT and the RV PANDAW underwent a major renovation at the Yangon Dalla Dockyards. As far as the Hotel side is concerned new furniture has been specially designed and new Food and Beverage equipment have been bought.
The Irrawaddy Flotilla
A journey on Burma’s Irrawaddy River is one of life’s great travel experiences. No vessel could be more appropriate for this than a ship of the Pandaw fleet. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in its heyday in the 1920s was the largest privately owned fleet of ships in the world. The company restored in teak and brass an original colonial river steamer called the RV Pandaw.
Irrawaddy Flotilla company’s colonial-style river ships are of great craftsmanship and wonderful local materials the Pandaw ships offer alternative standards of comfort and design finish to any other large ships afloat.
Pyi Gyi Tagon
Run by Myanma Inland Water Transport. These newly built three Decker boats, which mainly plies long distance between Mandalay and Bhamo.
Pyi Gyi Tagon has three river craft and plies between Mandalay and up river north to Bhamo three times a weekly.
The Pyi Gyi Tagon has a different level of accommodation with price ringing between US$ 36 to 54 per person for approximately 2 day 2 night journey between Mandalay and Bhamo.
Run by Myanma Inland Water transport having three newly built crafts by Chinese, each one has a capacity of about 100 passengers in all reclining seat at bottom level and an observation deck and dinning hall at up stairs.
Shwekennery plies between two ancient capitals every day except on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Modern, cruise, faster speed with 32 nautical miles an hour, the Malikha operates 2 x boats with capacity around 130 seats.
This cruise service connects easy between Mandalay and Ancient city of Bagan [approx 5 hour], as well as between Ngapali beach and capital city of Rakhine, Sittwe [approx 7 hour] and between Sittwe and the ancient city of Mrauk U [approx 2 hour].
The Amara River Cruise is a traditional Myanmar riverboat traveling along the Ayarwady and Chindwin River. It measures 30 meters / 100 feet in length by 8 meters / 24 feet in width.
With a shallow draft of 1 meter/ 3 feet and two Hino engines. It can go as far north as Bamo all year round. On board you find a total of seven Cabins, six standard double cabins and one deluxe, each with its own bathroom with hot and cold shower. Communal areas include dining room, bar and canopied sundeck.
The Byar Nyar Latt plies between Yangon and capital of Delta Pathein leaving Yangon every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and Pathein to Yangon every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Capacity of 12 twin cabins and ideal to combine with transportation to the newly established Ngwe Saung beach one way by cruise and return by land.