IRRAWADDY RIVER AND RIVER TRAVEL IN MYANMAR

IRRAWADDY RIVER

IRRAWADDY RIVER (Ayeyarwady River) runs for about 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) from northern Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal, near Yangon, and is constantly changing. In the wet season, in some places, it fills with so much water it resembles a vast chocolate-brown lake. In the dry season, in the same places, the river level drops so low that the river bed resembles a desert of white sand dunes. [Source: Alexander Frater, Smithsonian, May 1984, the Observer]

Keeping navigators on their toes are sandbars that change by the day, and even the hour, and channels that are fifty feet deep in the morning and silt up and disappear by the evening. It is not surprising that many of the steam ships that travel on the river periodically run aground and get stranded for days at a time. Erosion along the river is so common place that each year villages collapse into the river and swallowed by the swirling brown water.

The Irrawaddy divides Myanmar in two. The eastern region is more densely populated and has better transportation links to Yangon. The western region is less densely populated and more rugged. Sometimes the only transportation links are by river. The middle portion of Myanmar is centered around the Irrawaddy River, with a large delta area at its mouth and the area above the delta featuring floodplains. Most of the population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy, which is navigable for about 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles). The Irrawaddy’s annual flooding during the rainy season makes its rich banks and delta the most fertile in Myanmar and ideal for rice paddy agriculture.

The cast of characters seen in and along the Irrawaddy include women washing clothes, men sawing teak logs, fisherman casting nets and water buffalo pulling the logs out of the water. On some stretches of the river you can see acre-size squares of chained-together teak logs, bamboo rafts with huts on them and rafts built on top of clay cooking jars that sometimes break into pieces when they run aground. On the banks of the river are numerous villages, with women hawkers that sell cheroots, sweetmeats, fruit and roasted sparrows to passengers in passing ships.

Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “The Irrawaddy River has stirred the imagination of some of the world's greatest writers, such as Kipling and Orwell. The name "Irrawaddy" is an English corruption of Ayerawaddy Myit, which some scholars translate as "river that brings blessings to the people." But it's less a river than a test of faith, receding during the country's dry season until its banks sit exposed and cracking in the sun, only to return each spring with the monsoon, coming to life, flooding fields, replenishing the country with water, fish, and fertile soil. The Irrawaddy has never disappointed the Burmese. It is where they wash, what they drink, how they travel. Inseparable from their spiritual life, it is their hope. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

“All that arises, passes away. These waters speak of glacial beginnings in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalaya below Tibet. They have surged through jungle-covered highlands to emerge in the sun-scorched plains of central Myanmar, where they will continue to the ocean, releasing finally into the Andaman Sea. Boats carry staw-packed pts bound for Israel, wood for pottery kilns and taek and hardwoods bound for Thailand and India. Around Pyay taxi boats use old monk robes for sails. Black floats indicates where nets have been placed.

“Because the Irrawaddy river is navigable for most of its length, it has served throughout history as the country’s major transportation route for communication, trade, and warfare. Additionally, it has assisted in keeping alive the memory of earlier civilizations so that successive Burmese polities up and down the river have often asserted their legitimacy by demonstrating connections to earlier kingdoms. Interestingly, the depth of these connections is far greater in Myanmar than for other countries of mainland Southeast Asia. The Irrawaddy, including its considerable tributary, the Chindwin, drains approximately three-fifths of the country's surface terminating in a broad delta below the modern capital, Yangon (Yangon). Fertile silt from the Irrawaddy has continually expanded this delta area that gained in economic importance over the last two centuries as it was cleared for the production of irrigated rice. Yangon’s riverine location near the Bay of Bengal provided the British with a seaport through which to govern their colony. Until today, Yangon has remained the capital and center for political and economic activity, whereas Mandalay, built in the nineteenth century and the last royal capital, has continued to be a major center for fine arts and education.”

Course of the Irrawaddy River

Feed by water from Tibetan springs and Himalayan glaciers, which locals say make the river too cold to swim in even where it empties into the sea, the Irrawaddy River officially begins at a point called the Confluence, where a group of mountain streams gather beside a great rock. It then runs south through dense jungle passing through Myitkyina and Bhamo. [Source: Alexander Frater, Smithsonian, May 1984, the Observer]

Between Bhamo and Mandalay, the Irrawaddy River passes ruby mines and narrows and picks up speed and courses between towering cliffs. It twists and turns through the Three Narrows, three areas where the river narrows to less than 100 meters between forest and cliffs. The currents are very fast and there are of whirlpools. Between Bhamo and Sinbo, 55 miles to the north, there is another set of narrows that can not be negotiated by large boats.

Usually, this section can only be negotiated by boats for a six week period after the rainy season when the water is high enough. Before entering the most treacherous section of the river, captains consult a painted red-and-green rock shaped like the head of a parrot. If water reaches the parrot's beak it means that there is a difficult ride ahead. If the water is over the beak the boat has to wait.

There are many ship wrecks along this section of river, including vessels of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which were deliberately sunk in 1942 to keep them out of the hands of the invading Japanese. Some of the ships were salvaged in the 1980s and rebuilt.

Between the Mandalay area and the ancient city Pagan are the ruins of several old Burmese capitals, including Mingyun, Sagaing, and Amarapura. The temples of Pagan are visible along the banks of the river for more than 30 kilometers. In this area the river is filled with teak canoes and lashed together logs.

The ancient Burmese worshiped the Irrawaddy as Hindu's worship the Ganges, and Burmese monarchs built their royals cities on its banks and held meetings on it with their generals and scholars in gold-and-crimson ships with silk awnings. Captains and crews that ran aground on Italian sternwheelers purchased by the kings in the 19th century ran the risk of being beheaded on the foredeck of their own ship.

Downstream from Pagan, the Irrawaddy River passes the ancient city of Prome. As one approaches Yangon, more and more factories come into view and river activity picks up. The Irrawaddy does not run through Yangon but is connected to it by the Twante Canal. Before emptying into the Bay Of Bengal, the Irrawaddy breaks down into a massive delta laced with creeks and swamps. See the Irrawaddy Delta

River Travel on the Irrawaddy River

Much of the commerce between north Myanmar and south Burmese travels on the Irrawaddy River via the world's largest fleet of river steamers (600 ships carrying 1.36 million tons of freight and 14 million passengers in 1984). Many of the boats are shallow draft T-class vessels which date back to the Japanese-era in the 1940s. These boats can carry around 400 deck passengers and 60 tons of cargo.

The pilots of these boats often place their feet on the wheel because, one pilot said, "the steering on these old T-class ships is so heavy you need the full power of your leg and thigh muscles." At night they use a search light to scan the banks and the water for reference points and sandbars. Biblical swarms of insects sometimes congregate around the lights. The pilots endure a lot of stress and often they are the only members of the crew allowed to bring their wives, to help them relax.

There are also some luxury boats that run on the river. Most of these trips are organized by tour companies. The 53-meter RV Pandaw is one boat used in such trips. Built in Scotland in 1947, it is a shallow-draft luxury steamer outfit with a modern engine. Trips on the boat range from $145 for a singel day trip to $3,750 for a 10-day cruise. In the early 2000s, luxury steamers cruised were allowed to travel past Mandalay through the famous Three Narrows area to Bhamo for the first time. There is a six week period in August, after the rainy season, when the water is high enough for this trip. A ship called the Road to Mandalay does a trip that includes this section. Run by Venice Simplon-Orient Express, the11–day trip cost between $3,340 and $6,230 in the early 2000s.

Dangers on the Irrawaddy River

The problem with T-class vessels is that they tip over easily and roll badly even in a one-foot swells. Some are outfit with metal "panic barriers" in the middle of the deck of the boat that stop people from rushing from side to side and turning the ship over. A half dozen or so T-Class vessels have been lost when they flipped over in storms.

An obvious indication that a boat-turning storm is coming is a massive spiraling dust devil that is visible in the distance. If a pilot sees one of these he immediately steers the boat to shore and orders everyone off the ship. During the sudden turns to get to shore though sleeping children sometimes roll over the edge of the deck and are never heard from again.

Many ships run aground, which is more likely to occur in the dry season when sandbars lurk just inches below the water. To avoid running aground, boat pilots listen to the sound of the bow wave of their boats. "When it grows soft," one pilot told journalist Alexander Frater, "it means the water is getting shallow. When it vanishes altogether, you're in trouble."

Describing what this pilot did when his boat ran aground, Frater wrote: "He ordered the engines full astern and the steamer trembled violently as a cloud of frothing water, the color of bitter chocolate, steamed away past her bow. Then he rang up full ahead and with her plates grinding like iron teeth, the ship inches forward. Backwards and forward we went, painstakingly digging our own trench and, within half an hour, the skipper got us out of there. It was a performance of consummate skill."

Describing the Irrawaddy River biggest danger, a flooded chuang , the pilot told Frater, "It's when a cloudburst causes a flash flood in a dried-up stream bed which carries everything before it—trees animals, even people. Only last year a visiting dance troupe was performing for a village in a dry creek bed when the waters caught them. Everyone was washed into the river and, days later, we were still picking up the bodies of the dancers in their bright silks."

"Along the length of the river there are thousands of these chuangs and everyone is a potential menace. It makes a roaring sound when in nears, and that is something a master must always listen for because, if it strikes a ship broadside, there is nothing he can do. One T-class we lost was steaming at night. It caught him at 4:00am and that ship vanished entirely. We knew where it went down and we even went looking for it with metal detectors, but it was buried under thousands of tons of sand and there wasn't a trace of it."

After one great flood so many people were killed the bodies were wrapped in bamboo mats and set adrift because there wasn't the time or a place to bury them and steamboat captain had to navigate their way around the bodies for weeks later.

River Travel in Myanmar

Myanmar has thousands of kilometers of navigable waterways and river travel is a common way of getting around. The main routes are along the Irrawaddy River. With the construction of better roads water transport is becoming less vital to the transport system. Many ferries no longer operate. Many travelers like to get around by water because it is more romantic, scenic and mellow. Boat trips from Mandalay to Pagan are very popular.

Most people living in the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta—one of the least developed parts of impoverished Myanmar—rely heavily on poorly-maintained river ferries for transportation around its flooded plains.Some ferries carry vehicles one at a time across rivers. They are sometimes little more than a pair of boats with a platform built across them.

Myanmar’s Inland Water Transport operates a huge fleet of double and triple-decker boats. There is a regular service between Bhamaw and Mandalay and between Mandalay and Pyay (Prome) via Pagan. There are also tourists boats that run between Yangon and Mandalay a couple of times a week. There are other boats that travel on the Irrawaddy River—between Bhamo and Mandalay, for example—but these boats are often off limits to foreigners. Tourists who have taken the two-day boat between Bhamo and Mandalay said it was cheap, very uncomfortable and an experience they will never forget. Tour agencies sometimes arrange tours on other sections of the Irrawaddy for package tours. There is also expensive boat service (about $75) between Inle Lake and Loikaw (the long-necked women town).

There are currently several boats plying the popular route between Mandalay to Pagan/Nyang Oo on the Irrawaddy River, which means there is boat leaving almost everyday. Some boats are faster than others and most visitors travel down river from Mandalay to Pagan. The older boats take about 12 hours and set off in the morning. It is a wonderful trip. Tickets can be bought at Myanmar Travels and Tours. Try to get to the boat early so you can secure a seat.

Waterways: 12,800 kilometers (2011), country comparison to the world: 10; Merchant marine: total: 29, country comparison to the world: 86; by type: cargo 22, passenger 2, passenger/cargo 3, specialized tanker 1, vehicle carrier 1; foreign-owned: 2 (Germany 1, Japan 1); registered in other countries: 3 (Panama 3) (2010). Ports and terminals: Moulmein, Rangoon, Sittwe [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Boat Trip Between Mandalay and Pagan is, for many tourists, the highlight of their trip to Myanmar. Memorable scenes along the way include naked children swimming in the river, women pounding their laundry on the rocks, ox carts transporting goods, paddle boats plying the river and quiet villages. The 16-hour trip from Mandalay to Pagan on a regular ferry costs $10.

Bhamo can be reached by ferry from Mandalay. It is major town on the Irrawaddy River and a major smuggling center only 50 miles from the Chinese border. It is in Shan-controlled territory. Travel in the area is sharply restricted. Travelers are told to stay near the main roads, which are heavily guarded by the Myanmar army and have numerous road blocks on them. Bhamo is reputed to be surrounded by ancient walls and a moat.

Ferries and Boats in Myanmar

There are currently several boats plying the popular route between Mandalay to Pagan/Nyang Oo on the Irrawaddy River, which means there is boat leaving almost everyday. Some boats are faster than others and most visitors travel down river from Mandalay to Pagan. The older boats take about 12 hours and set off in the morning. It is a wonderful trip. Tickets can be bought at Myanmar Travels and Tours. Try to get to the boat early so you can secure a seat.

Myanmar’s Inland Water Transport operates a huge fleet of double and triple-decker boats. There is a regular service between Bhamaw and Mandalay and between Mandalay and Pyay (Prome) via Pagan. There are also tourists boats that run between Yangon and Mandalay a couple of times a week. There are other boats that travel on the Irrawaddy River—between Bhamo and Mandalay, for example—but these boats are often off limits to foreigners. Tourists who have taken the two-day boat between Bhamo and Mandalay said it was cheap, very uncomfortable and an experience they will never forget. Tour agencies sometimes arrange tours on other sections of the Irrawaddy for package tours. There is also expensive boat service (about $75) between Inle Lake and Loikaw (the long-necked women town).

Boat Schedules (Name of Vessel, Route, Schedule): 1) RV Pandaw 1947: Yangon - Prome - Thayetmyo - Minhla - Magwe - Salay - Pagan - River Village - Ava - Mandalay - Amarapura - Kyauk Myaung - Mingun - Sagaing: 10 Nights; 2) RV Pandaw 1947: Mandalay - Kyauk Myaung - Mingun - Sagaing - Amarapura - Ava - River Village - Pagan - Salay - Magwe - Thayetmyo - Prome - Yangon: 10 Nights; 3) RV Pandaw 1947: Pagan - River Village - Ava - Mandalay - Amarapura - Kyauk Myaung - Mingun - Sagaing: 5 Nights; 4) RV Pandaw 1947: Mandalay - Kyauk Myaung – Mingun – Sagaing – Amarapura - Ava – River Village - Pagan: 5 Nights; 5) RV Paukan 2007: Mandalay to Pagan: 1 Night; 6) RV Paukan 2007: Pagan to Mandalay: 2 Nights; 7) RV Paukan 2007: Mandalay- Mingun- Sagaing- River Village- Pagan: 2 Nights; 8) RV Pandaw 1947: Grand Voyage Of The Chindwin River (Pagan - Pakkoku - Pakhan gyi - Monywa - Mingin - Kalewa - Mawlaik - Mandalay): 9 Nights; 9) RV Pandaw 1947: The Bhamo Cruise (Mandalay – Kyauk Myaung – Tagaung – Katha – Bhamo – Shwegu – Mingun – Mandalay): 7 Nights; 10) RV Mahaythi: Yangon-Twante-Yangon: Daily; 11) RV Mahaythi: Yangon Sunset Cocktail Cruise: Daily; 12) RV Mahaythi: Yangon-Maubin-Yangon: 2 Nights; 13) RV Mahaythi: Yangon-Kyaiklat-Phyarpon-Yangon: 3 Nights; 14) RV Mahaythi: Yangon-Pathein-Ngwesaung: 4 Nights; 15) RV Mahaythi: Yangon-Pyay: 8 Nights; 16) RV Mahaythi: Pyay-Pagan: 6 Nights; ) RV Mahaythi: Pagan-Monywa-Kalewa: 7 Nights; 17) RV Mahaythi: Pyay - Pathein: 8 Nights; 18) Road to Mandalay: Mandalay-Bhamo-Pagan: 11 Nights; 19) Road to Mandalay: Mandalay-Pagan-Mandalay: 7 Nights. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Long-Tailed Boats (named after drive shaft which extend beyond the back of the boat and connects the an automobile engine to a propeller) are used by locals and tourists to get around the rivers of Myanmar. Tourist generally travel on boat trips sponsored by travel agencies and locals get around on boats that run scheduled routes like buses. The fares for local boats are quite reasonable. The tours aren't very expensive either.

Many of the long tailed boats used in Myanmar are long narrow river taxis with a covering for protection form the sun and rain, A bout that carries eight to 10 passengers can be hired for about $5 an hour

Cargo Boats make the trip between Yangon and Mandalay in about three to four days down river and four to five days upriver. They are also the backbone of transportation in the Irrawaddy Delta. Describing a trip on a river cargo boat after Cyclone Nargis, the Los Angeles Times reported: “The 30-foot boats I hired normally haul sugar cane, bananas or rice. No crew was willing to chance two trips, so after each four-night journey, we returned to Yangon, switched boats and set out again. The boats are not built for comfort. The holds are open to leave room for cargo, which meant my only hiding place was the cramped space beneath the top deck. About 15 feet across and 8 feet deep, with a wooden ceiling and peeling turquoise paint, it was a dark, sweltering cell barely big enough to sit upright in. [Source: Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2008]

The pilots sat on the roof above me. One, to keep his hands free for frequent bottles of cheap cane liquor, pinched a steel pipe between his toes, deftly working the Chinese-made 18-horsepower diesel engine that spun a long-tail propeller sluggishly churning the water. The machine pounded like a jackhammer. And since the four-man crew felt safer staying away from land, it thumped day and night, stopping only when we slipped into storm-ravaged villages.

Their courage braced by the cane liquor, the crewmen felt their way through the night. They poked at shallow channels with a bamboo sounding pole, comparing what they could see of the ruined landscape with foggy memories of trees that once pointed the way. Sunset was also the signal for the boats' full-time occupants to come crawling out of the cracks. Cockroaches the size of mice and spiders with legs as long as crabs' feasted on the crumbs of our food. At times, so many bugs skittered around that it sounded like a gentle rain. A green vine snake dropped in one night from an overhanging branch. The long, thin snakes are agile and only mildly venomous. A bite would be very painful but not fatal. Just the same, it would have blown my cover pretty quickly. A crew member who usually worked the hand pump to clear the constant flow of bilge water beat the serpent to death. Carefully keeping it at arm's length, he tossed it overboard with a stick.

50 Die in Myanmar Ferry Crash

In November 2009, AFP reported: “At least 50 people are feared dead after a packed passenger ferry crashed into an oil barge. The accident happened when the wooden boat carrying nearly 180 passengers was traveling along the Ngawun river in the southern Irrawaddy Delta, the officials said. "The boat sank after colliding with an oil barge. We have recovered 34 bodies and there at least another 16 people missing who are believed to have drowned," said an official in the area on condition of anonymity. "The other passengers were rescued from the water and have gone back to their home villages," the official said, adding that the vessel was traveling between the towns of Pathein and Thetkelthaung when it sank. [Source: AFP, November 17, 2009]

At least 38 villagers were killed when a boat sank in the delta region in July 2008.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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