Flowing 1,350 miles through the centre of the country, the Irrawaddy is Burma’s lifeline and an essential element of Burma’s history, culture and economy. A commercial waterway for centuries, providing irrigation for agriculture, water for drinking and washing and even a spiritual link between communities, the banks of the river are busy with communities who farm or fish for a living. A few days on the river is a relaxed way to get between destinations
The Irrawaddy is the principal river of Burma (Myanmar) and flows through the center of the country from north to south, forming its most important waterway for commercial transport. More romantically, it is known as the “Road to Mandalay” after Kipling’s poem. The Irrawaddy, called Ayeyarwady in Burmese, is 1350 miles (2170km) long with a drainage basin of 158,700 square miles (411,000sq km). It is fed by the Nmai and Mali rivers that rise in Myanmar’s northern glaciers close to the border with Tibet. Between Myitkyina, about 30 miles after its two tributaries merge, and Mandalay the Irrawaddy passes through a series of narrow gorges with vertical cliffs up to 300ft (90m) high.
Most river cruises start from Mandalay and sail either south to Bagan or north to Katha. If the river is high, and ethnic tensions low, some ships carry on to Bhamo near the Chinese border. In both directions you will discover a deeply spiritual and traditional way of life that is only now opening up to the outside world.
Each day on the river begins with the sound of devotional chanting from waterside monasteries, surely one of the most beautiful wake-up calls in the world. In its middle reaches, the Irrawaddy is a good half-mile wide and just a few feet deep, its waters eddying around sand islands where farmers plant peanuts and sesame and their wives thwack the family’s wash against the rocks. You’ll pass local ferries so laden with passengers and cargo that sinking seems a real possibility. Nearer the shore, fishing canoes bob along precariously like paper boats.
The stretch between Mandalay and Bagan is rich in cultural treasures including several former royal capitals. Stops usually include a walk through the pagoda-studded Sagaing hills, sunset at photogenic U Bein Bridge, built from a thousand teak logs, and a pony-and-trap ride through sleepy Inwa (Ava) to admire the glorious woodcarvings at Bagaya monastery.
Along the way, in villages and markets, you will meet some of the most generous and endearing people in the world.
The World Heritage Site of Bagan, one of Asia’s most impressive, is the grand finale: more than 2,000 temples, monasteries and pagodas built by megalomaniac kings from the ninth century onwards. Some contain superb frescoes of everyday life; others have giant statues of the Buddha. To grasp the scale of this medieval capital, it’s worth taking to the air on a dawn balloon flight.
Fewer tourists head upstream from Mandalay but there is much to reward the inquisitive, with more time spent in villages including Nwe Nyein, where potters make 50-gallon water pots on hand-turned wheels with the ease of years of practice. To the north lies Katha, setting for Burmese Days, George Orwell’s scathing attack on empire based on his time here as a policeman. His gloomy red-brick house and the former British club still stand in this sleepy small town.
Beyond Katha the river narrows to pass through a series of “defiles” that echo with the chatter of birds and gibbons in trees hung with rare orchids.
If you are lucky you will see rare river dolphin playing in the ship’s wake. The sound of a car or a truck is a rarity here. To explore these upper reaches is to travel back in time to the Asia of yesteryear.