The waterway to Mandalay: A classic riverboat journey

The waterway to Mandalay: A classic riverboat journey
A nun washes clothes in the Irrawaddy. More than 2,100 kilometres long, the river begins in the foothills of the Himalayas and tumbles into the Andaman Sea, Photo Credit: Radhika Jha

In spite of its wealth of history and beautiful scenery, the Ayeyarwaddy is not a river for tourists. If anything, it is more like the Grand Trunk Road of Myanmar, transporting almost everything under the sun

Radhika Jha
November 25 , 2015
13 Min Read

In an age when most rivers of the world have been tamed long ago, their waters contained by dams and then redistributed piecemeal over acres of hungry farmland, Myanmar’s Ayeyarwaddy alone remains what nature intended it to be. More than 2,100 kilometres long, it begins in the foothills of the Himalayas and tumbles into the Andaman Sea. It is navigable all year round up to Bhamo, 80km from the Chinese border and almost 1,500km inland!

Better known to Indians as the Irrawaddy, the Ayeyarwaddy is mute witness to nearly fifteen hundred years of Burmese history. From the earliest known kingdom of the Pyus in Srikshetra, till the Konbaung dynasty of Mandalay (whose last king, Thibaw, was overthrown by the British, and exiled to Ratnagiri), all Burmese kingdoms were centred on the banks of this great river. Whoever controlled the river, controlled the country.

But in spite of this wealth of history and beautiful scenery, the Ayeyarwaddy is not a river for tourists. If anything, it is more like the Grand Trunk Road of Myanmar, transporting everything from diesel, teak, bamboo, cereals, fruit and vegetables, toilets, generator sets, Chinese blankets, and of course, people. In a country with a population of 40 million, an estimated 14 million people travel on the government-run steamers each year.

The Ayeyarwaddy can be divided into two stretches -- downriver from Mandalay to Yangon, and upriver from Mandalay to Bhamo. Downriver from Mandalay, the land is flatter, less forested and more settled. Upriver, between Mandalay and Bhamo, it is wilder, less populated, and more forested.

I choose to go upriver and travel from Bhamo for two reasons: the first is because I happen to be fascinated by frontier towns. The second is to see Katha, the place where Eric Blair, known to the world as George Orwell, was posted as a colonial police officer from December 1926 to June 1927 and where his novel Burmese Days is set. In retrospect, it was Katha that decided me.   

To fly from Yangon to Bhamo takes the best part of a day. First one has to fly to Mandalay and then take the government-run Myanma Air which is known for its unreliability. I expect Bhamo to be ugly but to my surprise it is not. Riding from the airport into town on the back of a cycle-rickshaw, with my luggage in another rickshaw, one gorgeous teak house follows another. In front of them, giant umbrella-shaped trees reached across the road in a leafy embrace. And then, as if this weren’t picturesque enough, a gorgeous white-and-gold stupa suddenly comes into view, sitting serenely in the midst of a pond, bicycles and pedestrians ambling past.

Bhamo began as a loggers’ town, and remains predominantly the same today. The British logging companies all had their headquarters here. The population was a multi-religious mix of Indians, Burmese, and Chinese and each faith had their temple, mosque, stupa or church. There was even a gurudwara. Though the Indians and the Chinese have now all become Burmese (Maqbool Khan, for example, has become U Ba Thein), the town remains much the same. The main street, overlooking the river, is still called the Strand. The covered wooden market still stands on its stilts, though it is now called the Chinese Market because most of the goods sold at it come from China. The local cinema still has wooden benches for seats, and from time to time shows an Indian movie. And each morning nuns in rose and saffron and monks in maroon walk through the market in single file collecting alms from the traders just like the Buddha did. And the logging also goes on.

The Inland Water transport office is housed in a wooden bungalow on a sleepy side street, opposite the Sikh temple. “Is there a boat on Sunday?” I ask the manager, a rather fearsome man in a dirty longgyi. He nods violently. “Can I buy the tickets now?” I ask. He shakes his head. “Tomorrow, tomorrow. Ten o’clock,” he shouts.

The next day, Sunday, I am told that the boat hasn’t arrived. “When will it come?” I ask, feeling slightly hysterical. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe in two days.” He replies using his fingers. It is left to a Czech tourist, the only other traveller I saw on the entire trip, to explain what he means. In December, when the river is at its lowest, sand bars appear and the river steamers often run aground. She took five days to get to Bhamo, a trip that the guidebooks say should take only two. So Sunday ended up being spent on a trip upriver to a logging camp. While the forest was exquisite, the elephants weren’t working because it was a Sunday, a fact that perhaps explains why there is still a fair bit of teak to be seen. 

On Monday the manager is beaming. “Boat has come,” he says, showing off his paan-stained teeth. “Come to the jetty by noon.”

The only way to get to the jetty, 3km from town, is by horse cart. As we bump our way down a narrow dust track on the edge of the river, I can see why. At last we arrive at the famous Mandalay jetty. A collection of thatched roofs sheltering ramshackle restaurants, two tractors pulling carts heaped sky high with sacks. Two wooden planks link ship to shore. A military man on a motorcycle checks the papers of the transporters.

We go aboard, dodging porters carrying huge sacks of Chinese blankets. The boat has two decks: a lower and upper. The lower deck is like second class unreserved on an Indian train. The first class is a set of tiny, smelly cabins. Each cabin contains two bunk beds, a table and a tiny washbasin. They are basic, to say the least, but you only have to share a bathroom with 10 others. The boat itself is a copy of the flat-bottomed river steamers specially designed by the British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in the 1880s, but this particular one, like much of what one finds in Myanmar, is manufactured in China.

At last the boat leaves the port, a mere three hours late. From the uncluttered rooftop of the boat, one sees the landscape unfold on either side. The water is like a mirror reflecting a chain of thickly forested hills framing either bank. Against this backdrop, the impertinently distinctive green of young rice comes as a shock to the eye. After the fields come a village all of wood and on stilts, a clot of darkness against the green of the forest. 

At sunset we enter a gorge. On either side, the gentle hills suddenly rear up and fall steeply into the river. Sometimes, if you are lucky you can see elephants bathing. But I wasn’t. The light faded fast as we sailed through the gorge, leaching the scenery of colour, turning the landscape into a Chinese painting or a Norwegian fjord, the stillness absolute. 

Night falls. It gets freezing cold on deck. I go down to the restaurant on the lower deck. Two tables with wooden benches are squeezed amongst piles of sleeping bodies, and sad, patient women selling snacks. A man hands you a bowl of rice and puts a dollop of curry into it. Two feet away, on a portable stove, more rice is being cooked. With the steam rising from the rice and the still blanket-covered bodies, the place looks like an anteroom of purgatory. But at least the meal is steaming hot and freshly cooked, so somewhat reassured, I return to the cabin. Just as I opened the door, the most enormous rat I have seen in my life, a bandicoot actually, suddenly emerges from a neighboring cabin and casually scuttles across my foot. I am so terrified I lose my voice, and all night as I hear them scampering overhead, my body trembles convulsively. At dawn, I hear the captain praying, his voice rising and falling sonorously over the public address system. Blearily, I go up to see the sunrise.

Such is the tranquil beauty of the landscape, that by eight in the morning the bandicoots are forgotten. At noon we arrive at Katha. At first I can hardly bear to look. Cautiously, I open my eyes. From the boat one sees three golden stupas, and an intermingling of wooden and cement houses, the latter mercifully hidden by giant peepul trees. The jetty is decorated with a gate on which the name of the town is proudly inscribed in curly Burmese writing. Katha looks exactly as Orwell described it: “The native town, the courts and the jail were over to the right, mostly hidden in green groves of peepul trees. The spire of the pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold. Kyauktada (Katha) was a fairly typical Upper Burma town…. In 1910 the government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress – interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong.” (pg 15, Burmese Days)

The police station, the jail, the hospital and the old British club all still exist.

I enter the compound of the police station reverently. Immediately a smiling Burmese police officer ushers me into a long single-storey building housing the oldest typewriter I have ever seen, an antique, made in 1939. One wonders: did Orwell write a few pages of his novel on its ancestor in between typing boring reports on the activities of the ‘natives’? Further down the road, is the hospital where Orwell spent some time recuperating from dengue fever and where he was befriended by an Indian doctor named Krishnaswamy, renamed Veeraswamy in the book. The British club, seat of colonial bigotry in the book, is now the headquarters for an agricultural co-op.  

After Katha, I slip into a delighted haze. Time ceases to matter. Village after village slips by, pagoda after pagoda. The river broadens steadily, the mountains approach and recede and then approach again, never quite deserting us. In the afternoons the women come to bathe and collect water at the river’s edge. Then the villages grow larger and more untidy and suddenly one glimpses cars. The food in the canteen gets boring and I dream of a proper bed, clean sheets and a bath. A little after noon the following day the boat pulls into Mandalay, a mere 12 hours late.

My last image is of Mingun’s magnificent but doomed stupa, 10km upstream from Mandalay. Had King Bodawpaya lived, Mingun would have housed the world largest stupa. But Bodawpaya died 29 years after the stupa was begun, leaving a base that measured 72m each side, and stood 50m high, overlooking the river. An earthquake in 1838 reduced it to the world’s largest pile of rubble and yet, even in its devastation, it clings to its grandeur.

The cruise will always remain with me, a time between times, fleeting, evanescent, yet more grittily real than my normal day-to-day world. 

The information

Getting there
By air: Myanmar Airways International offers Delhi-Yangon return on economy class. Quality is up to international standards. Air travel is also highly recommended within Myanmar, since roads are bad. Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways and Air Pagan are privately owned and provide good quality transport. Government owned Myanma Air are not recommended. Flights from Yangoon to Nyaung U/Pagan and onwards to Mandalay with connections to Heho/Inle Lake allow for quick visits to most tourist spots even during a short vacation.
For Bhamo flights with Myanma Air only are available, 2-3 times a week (stop over in Mandalay). Onward flights north from Bhamo to Myitkyina are possible.
Mandalay airport is the hub for traveling upcountry. It is the only international style airport in Myanmar. Don’t forget to keep with you USD 10 departure tax per person, payable at the airport.
By boat: Travelling to Bhamo from Mandalay would prove very slow during the dry season. A better option is to travel downriver from Bhamo to Mandalay. The boat leaves three times a week but there is no fixed schedule as departures are dependent on the boat arriving on time from Mandalay. Tourists pay USD 54 for the one – night journey (might be two nights, depending on the water level). The Inland Water Transport office is located near the Chinese temple in Bhamo city, but will generally provide information only, with very little English spoken. Tickets are in effect booked and paid for on the boat itself, one hour or so before departure, which might be anywhere between 7 am and 2 pm.

The information

Getting around
In Bhamo tourists are not allowed to hire cars or take taxis and travel by bus. Horse carts are the only means of transport. Foreigners are not allowed to travel beyond a radius of 3 miles. The usual excursion is to Sampanago: the remains of the old city walls of a former Shan kingdom. Ask for Myo Haung (old city). Local guides will also guide you to neighbouring villages on foot. The best thing to do is to hire a guide and boat for upriver cruises: visits to Shan villages are possible and trips to logging camps are recommended. Beautiful views over the local river system from a hill monastery (Pa Thein), just five km upriver from Bhamo are also worth a visit.  

Where to stay
Bhamo: Friendship Hotel ($20 per night) is the only hotel geared up for tourism. It has nice, clean rooms, especially in their new wing. The hotel manager is one out of a total of two English speakers in all of Bhamo. Information on ferry departures is also provided by the hotel. The Grand Hotel sounds grander than it is (tinted glass, China -style) and unless you speak Chinese could be very tiresome. A great terrace on last floor affords an amazing 360 degree view of city.
Mandalay: The Sedona Hotel Mandalay opposite the City Palace is a large international style resort hotel with a nice swimming pool. Rooms have great views of the City Palace walls and the moat. Mandalay Hill Resort (formerly Novotel), at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Same standards, but further from the city center and indifferent views.

Money-wise
At the time of my visit credit cards were not accepted except for one or two hotels which are Singapore-owned (Strand and Sedona in Yangoon and Sedona only in Mandalay). Few ATMs exist and accept local cards only. Travellers Cheques are accepted in Sedona hotel alone, and are subject to an additional 6-9% handling fees (as TC’s must be physically sent to Singapore for settlement. The downfall of the previous PM was somehow related to credit card and travellers cheque scams. So his successor decided to end all such transactions until further notice. Better bring along plenty of crisp dollars notes. Some USD 100 bill series are not accepted (rumours on fakes tend to disqualify them) and so it is safer to have 50 dollar bills or smaller. Rates for change into kyat are more or less the same everywhere in Yangon, but you lose out when you change money in other cities. Most places and even taxi drivers accept payment in dollars and kyats would be indispensable for shopping only.

Where to eat:
Bhamo: There are two restaurants in Bhamo, an Indian restaurant and Chinese restaurant. Both serve Bamar cuisine – but done either the Indian or the Chinese way. The Chinese restaurant (Sein Sein restaurant) does have an advantage though, it serves fresh grilled river fish stuffed with chillies and mint, one of the most delicious dishes I have ever eaten. In either place a meal costs less than a hundred rupees.


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