The longest and by far the most famous is the Ayeyarwaddy, better known to most of the modern world as the Irrawaddy River. This great river has been a source of livelihood and a vital transportation and communications link from time immemorial.
Commercial and military craft have plied the river for centuries; the headwaters of the Irrawaddy represent a gateway to the overland trade route to China, where the village of Bhamo has been a trading post on that route for a thousand years. Its importance as a trade route has in fact made the river a strategic military ‘highway’, and many wars have been fought for its control.
Not so very long ago, if ordinary folks wanted to travel from the southern coast to regions north and inland, they paddled a canoe or poled a raft, and the trip upriver was slow, arduous and fraught with perils. Going downriver was faster but just as perilous due to the vagaries of a huge river fed by mountain streams that turn to torrents in the monsoon season.
The river hasn’t changed all that much, nor the country it passes through. Today the Irrawaddy is arguably the best way for visitors to see and experience the magic and mystery of Myanmar, in essence unchanged from the days of myth and legend when kings and khans plotted and fought for power in a land blessed (or cursed) with gold, precious gems and teak in abundance.
Instead of vessels powered by oars or poles, travelers today can book an excursion on any of several luxurious river boats. Powerful engines propel cruisers with private staterooms, extravagant dining and all the modern amenities on a trip to the past. Not surprisingly, the longer the cruise and the further you travel on this amazing river, the deeper you can delve into Myanmar’s history, culture and stunning natural beauty.
In many of the small villages along the river, families live as they have for ages, using the same tools and crafting pottery, silks, carvings and ordinary necessities as their ancestors have done for countless generations. Much of the power generated is of the one-buffalo type – water buffalo are in use everywhere, often guided by children less than 1/20th of their weight.
However, alongside the very primitive, there is a wealth of fabulous art and craftsmanship to be discovered along the Irrawaddy, from the southern delta through which it runs into the Andaman Sea to its farthest navigable reaches in the northern state of Kachin. From Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan to Lake Inle to Bhamo, the river offers a multitude of fascinating sights, sounds and scents in every mile.
If you want to venture near the heart of Myanmar, as it is today and as it was ‘in the beginning’, a cruise on the Irrawaddy River will bring you as close as anyone is likely to get. Though visitors enjoy the luxuries and convenience of modern technology, they can still approach and sometimes embrace the entrancing diversity and mystery that is Myanmar.