Caroline Faulkner takes a dreamy historical journey down the river which has played a definitive role in shaping Myanmar’s land and history ~ The Ayeyarwady

This article was published in the Air Mandalay magazine Golden Flight" in April 1996 - there have been changes since! Webmaster

Ayeyawady River - Irrawaddy River

The Ayeyarwady’s rushing upper limits propel present-day time travellers through a geographical calendar of events. The river abounds with reminders of the heady, clashing scenes of inter-warring clans and the fast-living, rollicking days of the Raj, when anything from polo horses to tins of potted salmon were tossed from one bank to another.

In contrast, the quieter, undulating rhythms of the river’s tidal downstream dreamily babble and gossip about the increasing number of foreign admirers who call on them. Embarking on to rickety launches, oblivious to the consternation they are causing, voyagers cast off and float quietly into the Ayeyarwady’s picture postcard world, adding their own unique imprint and experience to the waterway’s ancient, diaphanous logbook.

This defiant, frequently tempestuous 1350-mile geographical lesion down the face of Myanmar has echoes at every bend of the manifold events and factions that have marred and moulded the country’s patchwork history. Pieced together from tribal groups over the years - from Shan sawbwas (princes) to primordial Wa - a colourful interwoven backcloth for Myanmar’s contemporary stage has formed around this great causeway, its seams often brutally wrenched apart by trains of marauders.

Used as an unwitting accomplice by invaders sailing clown its watery catacombs towards bloody debacles, Myanmar’s main artery has not only been the lifeblood of the country for thousands of years, but paradoxically it has also been the bypass through which the nation has been bled dry. Indeed, it is difficult for today’s visitors to fathom the vast watershed of rubies, rice, teak and artifacts that have flowed from the river’s exotic ports throughout the ages.

Independent river pilgrims may begin their travels at its locally named source Tsou dsong, where a watery font scratches the faltering, quirky signatures of the Mali Hko and Nmai Hko rivulets into the runoff rock of the 5887-metre high Hkakabu Razi yoma in the lower Himalayas.

Ayeyawaddy River

Nestling between the Assam and Yunnan borders, protected by the triad of the Paktai, Nu Shan and Kumon ranges, the river stumbles down a steep, cosseted enclave, before taking its first really negotiable breath at the town of Myitkyina in the rolling Kachin Hills.

During the 1800s, this colonial ultima thule - last military outpost - was barred to river vessels from May to October by swelling monsoon rains. The subsequent rail link forged through the grey Kachin stone around the turn of the century came too late to transport the news of the murder of the 1,000 troops stockaded at this most feared posting. Local residents claim that these garrisoned souls still make arresting appearances in the wooden homesteads of the village’s past elite; they presumably exist alongside the clusters of hopeful gold washers from China and the Mongol plain, who traversed to this pebbly Mecca through the sands of pre-Buddhist pagan times.

Leaving the coolish climes of Myitkyina, the Ayeyarwady channel flexes its broadening girth and gathers enough muscle to jibe at the foundations of the heavily wooded spurs, whose scarred trees cling heroically to their eroding lifeline. The Mogaung fork lies in wait 65 miles below this point in flat grassy glades, where amber, serpentine and Indian rubber were once extracted by foreign powers, and not so fortunate robbers languished in a bustling penal colony.

First Defile Ayeyarwady River
The First Defile

The Shan and Talok thatched tinker village of Senbo marks the erratic gorge waters of the Ayeyarwady’s first defile, which gathers momentum over an ever-deepening 35-mile gash. Melting snows squeezing into a size-too-small river-line have been known to push up river depths here by as much as 50 feet in one night.

First Defile Irrawaddy River
The First Defile

Stony-faced black harbingers blink steadfastly from the wash of racing cataracts along this route, signposting clear messages of doom for downstream vessels. At one time, brave mail boats took up to three weeks to surmount this craggy assault course and just six hours to descend.

Ayeyarwady at Myitkyina

At Tamangyi, the dreamy, distant Shan hills can be spied, arising to form a lilting plateau about 900- 1200 metres above sea level. Stone quarrying is still the main local trade plied in this hardy backwater, whose exponents claim to disturb otters, fish eagles, and the occasional panther, as they hack their lacklustre bounty from the hillsides.

Hillocks transform into peach-tree covered knolls upon reaching the once great jungle inlet of Sampenago. This Shan market town announces that the trade gateway to China, Bhamo (the potters’ village), is nearby. Here the Tai Ping River calmly melds with the Ayeyarwady’s glassy, molten mainstream, which oozes into a more pacific cast from its frothing, upcountry lather.
In years past, Chinese, Siamese and Burmese traders all haggled here over chatties (water-jars), burlaps and lacquerware, as laden caravans wound over the purple-flocked mountains of lowland China. A reverse tide of Mon surged across this silken border in the 16th century to settle in the Yunnan.

The audacity of the Bhamo area’s Italian roller birds, which enjoy flashing their blue underwings, has perhaps only ever been matched by the brazenness of the region’s highwaymen, who shadowed traders down its hilly passes in broad daylight. The most Turpinesque of all was most likely King Thibaw (r.1878-85), whose retinue regularly divested the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s steamers of their weighty cargo. Later, ironically, the Ayeyarwady gladly transported him and his Queen Suphayarlat, the last monarchs of the Konbaung dynasty, to exile in Ratanagiri in India.

At Bhamo’s outskirts, Waings housed obscure nomadic hawkers like those of the Rlnthay, who would rest and sup from their hollowed out wood wabos before touting their goods at the crowded riverside jetties. In its 18th century heyday, Bhamo entertained countless tourists. It took a very special kind of mud-skipper to steer a clear path through the criss-cross carpet of teak logs, mauve beda weed and jutting lotus stalks to harbour at this trading post.

Descending from Bhamo, a second defile looms broader than the first, its sides shaved of all foliage. Here the razor strokes of the river have left stiff bristles of bamboo clinging gratefully to the 800-feet high cliff face, whistling at their escape from the whirlpools below.

Second Defile
Second Defile

The swift pulse of this reach slows with respect as it files past the legendary Mount Wela. At this enchanted spot, the son of the old Queen and King of Sampenago, Welatha, was cast into the waters by his evil uncle, Kattha. As good fortune would have it though, the morally correct Ayeyarwady, which has thrown up many stately characters over its history, objected to this particular noble being tossed in, and promptly summoned a naga (mythical snake) to deliver the boy to safety on top of the rock.

Other pretenders to the throne have included Brito, a fanciful 17th century explorer who, after a stint as Portuguese governor of Syriam (Thanylin), took the helm of the port’s trading links for a few profitable years. An even bigger stake near the river awaited this ruby land, however; and in 1613 he pirated his last at the command of Arakan’s King command of Arakan’s King Anaukphetlun
(r 1605-1628).

In this deep river cleft, the river pioneers of yesteryear would hurtle over precipices like intrepid Conestoga wagons in a waterlogged western, carrying trinkets and voyagers to the sleepy spired oasis of Shwegu.

Passing the 18th century trading post of Shwebo, where the third Myanmar empire was founded by King Alaungpaya (c.1 750), the Ayeyarwady has now essentially forgotten its flirtation with the Indian border, had a brief, but very close encounter with the more alluring Chinese state line, and has stormed off independently into Myanmar’s heartland via its third defile.

At this point, the river creates a sketchy Pollacklike canvas, splattered and flecked with abstract geological oddities of varying earthy hues. From these rocky outcrops, washed clean by the steely, lapping chills of the Shweli River, the placid river grimaces with the splash of the new, as it pushes through the boundless Kaukkwe hillocks of the short-lived royal capital, Male. The kingly House of Alompra fell here, as did a later native customs station, all within the sight of the majestic 9,000 feet pinnacle of Shwe-u-daung. This high-priest of peaks inspects the endless procession of river craft flowing by, and also keeps an eye on the bedecked Gangaw hills to the right. With their hidden caches of rubies from the fabulous jewelled valley of Mogok, 60 miles west, the Shan overlords pay homage to the majestic mount.

Travellers nowadays can see few vestiges of this area’s past glories. The fisherfolk chewing ngapi (dried fish), the washer-women breakfasting on mohingha, and the bullocks straining with their hemp-laden carts remain, however, timeless theatre.

In 1617, the ubiquitous East India Company was the first trading company to send representatives to this area, fuelled by the fables of fortune to be had there. Tales of snake-charmers, teak-dragging elephants, rafting river families, tigers, and four-to-six-feet long fish weighing up to 500 pounds were all carried back to Europe by these colonial bandits.

From Mogok’s port of Thabeit-kyin, where the ‘Ruby King’ U Hmat misered his riches, the island Pagoda of Thihadaw comes into view. Deserted and decaying, this curious atoll’s tapering outline is distorted by the chanting litanies of ancient monks, who rattle around its greying confines. Further on, the less ethereal, rather grim hamlet of Kabwet appears. Its pied miner - a German, aptly -
charmed his way into the community, and was subsequently famed for liberating the inhabitants from their coal deposits for some years.

The waters of the third defile wheel like thousands of tiny flamenco rolls until Kyauk Myaung, where their unrelenting eddies finally cease. The punctuating notes of northern Myanmar’s volcanoes, whitewashed temples and nat-sins (the houses of deities) start to abate.

King Bodawpaya’s abandoned folly (c.1797), the 90-ton Mingun bell, heralds entrance to the river’s southern flow. Here the Ayeyarwady’s watery staves reach a burgeoning crescendo before unfolding into a broad, blank parchment, ready for the muddy milk of the Chindwin River to make its mark.

Curdling with the Mu creek, the main estuary’s proud, swollen beat falters before it prepares its tributaries for the approaching jewel in King Mindon’s crown (r.1853-1878) Mandalay - Yadanapon, Mound of Gems - officially instated as such in 1859. War canoes, state barges and tall ships once paraded along the palace moats at this now faded Camelot, watched by jousting conquerers from Germany, France, England and Italy, who were clearly there to win more than boat-race favours. The three lost capitals of Ava (Aingma), Amaurapura (City of Immortals) and Sagaing (with its Fort Museum and Kaung-hmudaw Pagoda) lie a few miles inland.

The hierarchy of the river becomes more pronounced here, with traditional hnaw-like vessels and sampans giving way to the larger tugs and rice barges, as they have done for centuries. Sardined steamer crews who awake rum-eyed at Mandalay are greeted by a dazzling array of temples, ma-hla (village beauties) and staliholders, all glimpsed through the ship bows’ slatted windows.

Picking up anchor and drifting 100 miles or so towards the looming dusty plain of the Ayeyarwady’s southern course, where Mons once reigned, voyagers can now see the ruins of Bagan. Originally settled by Mramma in 108 AD, Bagan later became the site of Myanmar’s first empire, when King Anawrahta defeated the Mons in 1057 AD. Built upon by successive sovereigns to a metropolis of over 13,000 temples, the area was rudely shaken by the Kublai Khan’s Mongols in 1287 AD and an even more violent earthquake in 1975. Nonetheless, over 2,400 pagodas still valiantly await Stupa spectators.

The gem-, teak- and ivory-laden river of Myanmar’s highlands has now given way to the more nutritious broth of swampy paddy fields. You are entering rice country. Tall bulrushed grass whistles at the river’s edge, which crumbles like halva as exotic Bengali breezes carve through it. Dusk in the rice bowl sees dinner-plate frogs barking orders from their bollard-like moorings dotted along the banks.

With the Ayeyarwady’s constant nurturing, Myanmar bloomed into the world’s largest rice exporter before the Second World War. Nine million acres are now under cultivation in these rich, alluvial pastures. The high agricultural productivity, along with the obvious budding shoots of tourism and commerce, present onlookers with a visible assurance of Myanmar’s future affluence.

At the Prome (Pyay) watergate, two starch white gryphons guard the town’s secrets the Shwesandaw Pagoda, and a hectic bazaar. Jacaranda trees bob on the marshy skirts of the headland, where gold lacquerware-makers and the si1k-weavers of the Hindu Kathè tribe once mingled. The typical English railway station transports visitors into Myanmar’s past with its museum’s memoirs, while modern oil companies dig deep into the areas modern treasure trove, its bounteous oil reserves.

Gliding past the deep gully of the former King’s Highway, the old customs post of Akouk Taung juts into the river. It was at this juncture that duties on imported goods, such as ‘Lancashire broadcloth, sewing machines, motor cars and corrugated iron’, had to be paid. This is where the sophisticated salt waters of the sea ‘officially’ meet the fresh, rural streams of the north. The 300-feet high caves of Gautama the Buddha play host to more robust river trekkers at this leafy glade, while the less adventurous glide on to Donubyu (White Peacock Town) where Bandoola routed the British militia.

From the Ayeyarwady Delta’s apex at Henzada, the Panhlang channel leading to Yangon (Rangoon, Dagon), still Myanmar’s major port, is not far. This one-time Mon fishing village began to gain some of its current prominence around the 14th century; and by the turn of the 19th century, millions of Bibby and Henderson Line passengers were weaving through its hyacinth-printed tide.

The capital’s small Hlaing passage winds its way seawards to spill stammering tales of adventure to the expansive ear of the Bay of Bengal. Lingering before this outpouring, the 1920s revellers of the Jubilee Hall can be heard. Here for the last time, the Ayeyarwady’s waters shimmy shamelessly with the waning jazz moon, decked with sparkling, dancing crowns and glittering pearl drops.

The wilder Thanlwin to the east can only envy her sister river’s spectacular debut into the sea; for although more beautiful and feisty than the Ayeyarwady, her traitorous consorting with China ensures that she can never engender much loyalty in most Myanmars’ hearts. In contrast, the faithful Ayey rwady is truly Myanmar’s own.

By the courtesy of the mighty Ayeryawady, crops have flourished, fortunes have been made, glistening palaces and Temples built, murdered souls disposed of, and the course of Myanmar’s land and history shaped. It may strike tourists standing on a bluff at the mouth of the river at Thanlwin, Pyabon or Mawtinzun, that the promise of enduring prosperity now being reborn in Myanmar makes the river a natural symbol for the potential growth of the whole country. Similarly, the river’s many strongly running, separate strands pushing into the unknown reflect the resilient, buoyant and divergent spirit of the Myanmars. Despite their sometimes troubled backgrounds, they now find themselves on the brink of cleansing away past events and uniting towards the 21st century.

...with thanks to Caroline Faulkner