Boats, banks & Kipling: Journey on the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay

Boat and bamboo on the Ayeyarwady River

Boat and bamboo on the Ayeyarwady River

The river of lost footprints. The road to Mandalay. The river that brings blessings to the people. If nothing else the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River is evoked by a great line, and Kipling’s poem of nostalgia and longing.

The Ayeyarwady River flows north-south straight down the middle of the country, a waterway of traffic and commerce, nourishing a huge rice-growing area in the delta. It is a river of spirits, a river for bathing, travel, food and living. Throughout Myanmar’s history it has been a conduit for power, rule and war with waves of boats, armies and war elephants precipitating the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires.

The British were no different, sailing up it in the 19th century to invade and then occupy Burma. They developed the greatest river fleet in the world at the time, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which was managed from Glasgow. It carried 9 million passengers on 600 vessels at its peak in the late 1920s. From 1865 the fleet carried soldiers, adventurers, explorers and colonialists, many to become lost footprints, dying of empire-building, war and disease.

Now it is a popular two day journey for tourists travelling north from the ancient medieval Buddhist kingdom of Pagan to Mandalay. Even so my fellow passengers might have stepped from a Somerset Maugham novel. There’s the public school grandson of a Burmese governor, an Anglican vicar missionary and his wife who discover family members were in Burma before the war. There’s new world Australian adventurers and old world charming central Europeans all being looked after by patient smiling Myanmar boatmen. There’s even an ill memsahib struck down by the tropical heat for want of a hat.

Kipling’s river: Low-banked, muddy and scrubby

“It is not an impressive stream, being low-banked, scrubby, and muddy; but as we gave the staggering rice-boats the go-by, I reflected that I was looking upon the River of the Lost Footsteps—the road that so many, many men of my acquaintance had travelled, never to return, within the past three years.”

The river is fascinating but not necessarily beautiful. It is wide and expansive, thin bands of barren sand banks separate vast canopies of grey sky and flowing water. For long stretches the riverscape is large, flat, harsh and featureless with the occasional isolated bamboo shacks on lonely banks. Then a burst of activity on the banks: water buffalo, teak and pottery industry, golden stupas and water shrines, a track leading from sandbank to a village, its bamboo houses on stilts just glimpsed amongst the dry green foliage. When the monsoons come the hot, drying landscape must explode with relief and life.

“We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek…”

Teak barges and clanking boats

It doesn’t take long for the first barge to pass by bearing teak logs bound for Yangon, after the hundredth barge you are fearing for the forests. Teak shaped modern Burma, attracting the British keen to exploit it for fortune and navy shipbuilding. All kinds of boats work and travel the river. There are old steamers renovated for luxury cruising, floating fisheries, long skiffs with fishermen crouching under straw hats deftly balancing as they haul in nets, clanking smoke-belching contraptions, mobile fuel platforms for the teak barges glide by, the quarry and dredging boat so laden with stones that the waves lap right-up at the edge of the gunwales. There are bamboo huts on floating rafts with washing hung out to dry.

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?”

The chunkin is now the phut-phutting of teak barges and fishing boats, infiltrating my dreams as I doze in the afternoon sun. Just like the British solder chilled by the ‘blasted English drizzle’ and nostalgic for hot Burmese days, the memory of clanking engines echoing across the water will always take me straight back to the enigmatic Ayeyarwady.

Sunset on the Ayeyarwady River

It’s nearly sunset and we are moored at a river village for our stricken Memsahib to see a doctor. All along the banks people are washing off the dirt and sweat of the day. The village kids, not used to seeing foreigners so close, are scampering nimbly up and down the banks, shy at first and then increasingly excited. The adults watch with curiosity from a distance. The women are puzzled by DC and the fact that she is white with black legs. Once she realises the source of their alarm she shows them she is wearing tights under her dress to general relief all round.

Map of the Irrawaddy River, which drains parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and India into the Andaman Sea (Wikipedia)

Map of the Irrawaddy River, which drains parts of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and India into the Andaman Sea (Wikipedia)

Our sick friend is stretched out on the deck falling in love with the local doctor as his calm and gentle manner reassures her through waves of fever. We are all caught in another beautiful Myanmar sunset, red gold air heavy and hazy over the waters and sandbanks. The sun slips quickly behind the trees but still lingers on, its dying embers held by the river before that too fades and suddenly it is dark. Time for a cheroot and some surprisingly good Myanmar whisky.

We sleep on the boat under a mosaic of stars and cooled by a soft breeze. It is quiet apart from the occasional sound of someone pissing into the water or clearing their throats to launch a missile of plegm into the night, a silent pause and then it softly plops into the river.

4.00 am and the engine splutters into life. We steer through the night. Every now and then a searchlight stabs and then sweeps over the river. I pull a blanket round and sit on the prow watching the new day dawn. Sunrise reveals boats and fishermen already working out working the river. Flocks of birds joyfully swoop over the water, revelling in the early morning cool, scattering through the air, as if thrown-up in great balls of confetti by the river itself. Golden stupas poke through green trees. The boats cuts through clumps of water lilies and a kite flies ahead of us. The early morning cool quickly turns into searing heat and the birds disappear for the shelter of the trees.

After the leisurely stupor of the journey we suddenly arrive at Mandalay with no more ceremony than rows of tethered boats. Continuing upriver would take you from the hot plains of central Myanmar onto the jungle highlands and eventual, at its source, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya. Right now it’s a scramble up a sun baked bank, hoping that you don’t lose your footing and fall straight back into the river. Over the top of the bank into dust, shacks, laden trucks, rubbish, wandering dogs and curious children. Living and livelihoods caught between the river and the city watching the tourists leave on a bus.

For an excellent account of kayaking: Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s River of Spirits
Maudlin or haunting? Kipling’s Mandalay poem

Further posts on Myanmar

Bagan temple ruins: eBiking a medieval Buddhist kingdom
Urban exploration in Burma
Postcards from Yangon

My thanks to my fellow passengers who were wonderful company and who I have may somewhat used for the purpose of this blog!

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5 thoughts on “Boats, banks & Kipling: Journey on the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay

  1. Wonderful post Alex. It evoked my memories of that same boat journey 6 years ago, with a Finnish traveler and a gentleman in linen suit, shoes without socks, a seemingly out-of-place soft leather briefcase and a full beard. He was a character straight out of Orwell’s Burmese Days – which I happened to begin reading in Mandalay. Thank you so much for describing scenes in such vivid detail, what a trip!

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    • Gentleman in linen suit, sockless. you would be so disappointed if he was not a Brit like something out of Burmese Days. The characters you meet are always the best thing about these kind of trips. I read Burmese Days a few years ago. It’s a good book but I have read some opinion that Orwell exaggerated somewhat while others said it was exactly like that. Thanks for the kind comments!

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