Long blue lines on maps have always captured my imagination—mighty rivers, like arteries and capillaries leading to places unknown, beckoning with the promise of new horizons. Andrew Marshall and his partner take a boat journey on the Irrawaddy—one of Indochina’s greatest rivers.
The Irrawaddy River meanders through an ancient landscape of eroded mountains and flood plains covering more than 2000 kilometers across Burma—present-day Myanmar. Ancient cities such as Mingun, Old Bagan, and Mandalay stand on its banks, proudly weathering the test of time.
In bygone colonial times, the Irrawaddy (officially Ayeyarwady) was and remains one of the largest rivers in the country and is an important commercial waterway that flows from the North to the South of Burma. The Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company operated countless cargo barges and brass-trimmed luxury paddle-wheelers, transporting up to nine million passengers when it was in service from 1865 to the late 1940s.
Today, river travel still plays an important role in the Irrawaddy. For those who have only a few weeks to explore Myanmar, there are numerous day and overnight trips that can be taken on small ferries, taking one from village to village. The colourful local boats offer a marvelous opportunity to experience river life first hand.
It was from the Mandalay Jetty (on Strand Road between 35th and 26th Street) that we first observed the mighty Irrawaddy dotted with colourful ferries loaded with all manner of produce, jostling for mooring space alongside double-decker, long-distance cargo boats that reminded one of grand old Mississippi paddle-steamers. The jetty was bustling with activities—villagers carrying huge loads on their heads boarded boats via narrow gangplanks with the agility of tightrope walkers, and bare-chested youths loaded sacks of vegetables to completely cover the cabin tops.
We decided to take a day trip from Mandalay to the abandoned ruins of Mingun, an ancient township 11 kilometres upstream. There are no scheduled departures for these smaller ferries—they leave when they're full, which generally doesn't take long.
The wait, however, is all part of the experience and we settled down to watch the fun. Hawkers boarded carrying woven platters of fresh pineapple slices, boiled eggs and rice cakes to sell. We were treated to a lively haggling session, the first buyer was aware she would set the price for the entire boat, and everyone took part in the bidding with plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’.
At the end of the dry season in June, the shores of the Irrawaddy looked desiccated. Huddled shanties of makeshift houses—flimsy structures made of bamboo and woven matting appeared as if they had been blown there by the winds.
Villagers were busy quarrying the sand that had built up along the banks in deep drifts. A small and graceful sailing boat kept pace with us, and a double-decker ferry thundered past, throwing up a foaming bow wave. We were treated to a colourful scene of daily life along the route—fishing villages, bullock carts, villagers laundering clothing. We were enthralled with the dynamism and chaotic poetry of life along the Irrawaddy River.
Halfway into the journey, we saw the magnificent landmark Mingun Pahtodawgyi rising against the mountainous backdrop with its great square mass towering over the river plains. In 1790, King Bodawpaya set out to build Mingun Pahtodawyi, the world's biggest Buddhist stupa that was to reach a height of 150 metres. Thousands of slaves laboured to complete it, but in 1819 when the king died, the work was abandoned. Only the base of the stupa had been completed, measuring 140 metres square and reaching 50 metres above the surrounding plains and river. Sadly, its only claim to fame today is as the world's largest piles of bricks.
As we disembarked at Mingun, we were humbled and filled with admiration. In 1838, an earthquake had badly damaged the monument—the resulting cracks and rubble only added to its beauty. We set off to explore the township that spread out around Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Following a procession of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, we found ourselves entering a small shrine filled by an immense bell that was cast to go with the huge stupa. Weighing 90 tonnes, it is the world's second-largest ringing bell. When struck with a large wooden log, rings with a rich and mellow resonance.
We scaled the weathered steps on one corner of Mingun Pahtodawgyi and were rewarded with panoramic views of the nearby Hsinbyume Pagoda with its blazing white terraces and ‘zedis’—solid bell-shaped stupas that may house relics. The hillsides were dotted with pagodas on every peak. However, it was the great Irrawaddy River that demanded our attention, drawing our gaze through shimmering bands of dusty blue haze to follow its snaking path across the plains to the far horizon.
There are numerous other possibilities for river travel. Travellers with more time on their hands can make the weeklong journey between Mandalay and Pye, ‘sleeping rough’ on the decks. More popular is the day-long run between Mandalay and the ancient ruins of Old Bagan (formerly known as Pagan). The slow boat stops overnight in the town of Pakokku where you can either find hotel accommodation or spend the night under the stars on board the upper deck. We took the day boat, a ten-hour jaunt to Old Bagan.
Old Bagan offers some of the most stunning historical and archaeological sites in Myanmar, definitely a rare spot in Asia where the architectural imprint of Buddhism has been so well preserved over the centuries. In a frenetic burst of religious expression, a golden age of temple construction took place over 230 years, from 1057. As a result, thousands of temples, ‘zedis’, and stupas stand in all shapes, sizes, and importance, neatly spread across 40 square kilometres along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The city of Old Bagan was abandoned at the end of the 12th century and left in ruins, its occupants thought to have fled during the invasion of the armies of Kublai Khan. With its treasures plundered and the city in ruins, it became the hideout for bandits and spirits.
Hiring the services of a horse buggy and driver for the day is perhaps the best way to explore Old Bagan. Many of the shrines have been revived as places of worship, with Buddhist pilgrims from all over the country coming to view the 9.5-metre tall gold Buddhas in the Ananda Pahto temple, or touch the holy stone that encloses a Buddha hair relic in Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Our favourite pagoda was the smaller, less ostentatious Ananda Ok Kyaung with its wonderful murals offering a remarkable view of life in a royal city in the 13th century. In the late afternoon, we climbed Mingalazedi Pagoda for a sunset view over Old Bagan—the spires of countless pagodas rising before us like a fleet of sailing ships in the desert. Our line of vision was once again drawn to the Irrawaddy River. Touched by the last rays of a setting sun in the magic hour of dusk, Irrawaddy is truly a river of life that has enabled ancient cities such as Bagan, Mingun, and Mandalay to continue to exist and thrive today.
As V.C. Scott O'Conner sums up beautifully in 1904 in ‘The Silken East: A Record of Life and Travel in Burma’, “the beauty of its waters, of its hills and forest, of its vast spaces, of the sunsets that wrap it in mysteries of colour—these are the things for which words are greatly inadequate.”