River Routes in Myanmar
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myanmarcuriseOne of the rivers of Myanmar, Irrawaddy, flows 2000km and begins and ends within one country, giving it life, witnessing its history and bringing together the people of the far north to the southerners living in delta lands. In these times of globalisation, one thing is unchanged about this mighty river: the lives of the river people and those of villages on its banks. Cityscapes may change from old houses to high rises, towns may become fast paced and modern, but life on the river remains the same as it was centuries ago.

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river-routeThe Irrawaddy has its birthplace the confluence about 43km north of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State. Mai Kha River from the East and Mali Kha from the West, the two rivers that came down from the snowy Himalayas, join their waters in a spot of spectacular beauty. Kachin legends say that the Great Spirit of the world poured water from a gold cup held in each hand, and Mai Kha which flowed from his right is the male river, wide, shallow, swift flowing and chuckling happily as he passes over river stones. The Mali Kha, poured from the left, is his sister. She has hidden depths shadowed with high cliffs and tall thick jungles. She is silent, mysterious, and dangerous.

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Born as they were from gold cups, both rivers give up gold in powder or nugget form. Many gold panners stake out claims o the sandy banks, sleeping in small make shift huts, living off the abundant fish and wild shoots and vegetables from the forests. The waters of these upper reaches from the confluence up to the town of Bhamo are crystal clear and blue, flowing with white crested waves pass the rugged rocks of the First Gorge. During the onset of the monsoon when the melted snows of the Himalayas swell the river to dangerous depths, it is said that the river roars through this First Gorge with the might of a hundred tigers. Bhamo is a trading post that since a thousand years has been a gateway to the overland route to China. Its importance in trade has been the cause of many wars, among them the invasion of the British into Myanmar that ended with total annexing of the country in 1885.

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transportation cruiseAfter Bhamo there is the Second Gorge, but here the river is calm and not too narrow. A high cliff towers over a turn in the river, looming up majestically over the small boats and rafts floating by. On this part of the river, the water is not too deep, and boats are hollowed from whole logs or small rafts made of bamboo. Indeed, rafts made up of less then a dozen bamboo poles are often seen with the one passenger lying back and humming a tune to ease the loneliness of his journey. In these upper reaches of the river, dolphins help the fishermen with their work by driving schools of fish into the nets, and men and dolphin have secured an affectionate relationship through generations.

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Just before the Third Gorge, the river passes by Tagaung, a town famous in legends and history as the probable capital of the earliest kingdom in Myanmar. In a country of such deep traditions as Myanmar, folklore holds more sway then scientific historical proof. When legends tell of a Naga, a dragon who could take human form and who was lover to a beautiful queen, and on whose death the queen made a jacket from his skin and a hairpin from his bones, who cares what archaeological proof says? There are many ancient ruined temples in Tagaung and stories of plentiful and harmless snakes, which are smaller cousins of dragons. Soon the thick jungles and isolated huts on high banks are left behind as the river widens andflows pass flat farmland and small villages. As the river widens it creates wide expanses of sandbanks, where farmers eagerly grow crops such as onions. They say that no onion is sweeter then that grown in the silt of the Irrawaddy.

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A book written in the1930 by an Irishman Major Raven-Hart, who canoed down the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina right down to the capital Yangon, described the life along the river in words that are still as accurate today as they were seventy years ago:

"Even at the villages where we did not tie up, our passing was an excitement: men and women bathing stood to watch us, boys washing their skirts waved them in salute, naked urchins sliding down the banks yelled and waved and pretended to be scared of our wash, water0buffaloes really were scared and gave their pygmy guardians a chance to show their authority (and to see a child of six dragooning one of these antediluvian monsters weighing a ton or so almost makes one proud to be human). All the life of the riverside village is on the bank of an evening: everyone bathes at least once a day, and skirts are changed and washed at every bathe, and smaller children with no skirts to worry about swim as soon as they can walk or sooner, and still smaller ones are brought down to be gurglingly dipped, astride the hip of a not-much-larger brother or sister."

Gradually the life on the river becomes busier as boats big and small carry goods and travellers and rafts of teak logs and bamboo flow with the current. Huge glazed pots lashed together form a different type of river craft altogether. They all come complete with a hut or two for the rafters to sleep and cook. Sometimes their pet dogs might even join them for the trip.

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Glazed ware is used to store oil or pickled fish or bathing water, and Kyaut Myaung, a huge production centre just after the end of the Third Gorge. The glazed ware of the town is famous, sent to all ports downstream during pagoda festival season, which is from October to May of the next year. The glazes are made from by-products of silver mines, added to river silt. The traditional colours are deep dark browns, lustrous greens and creamy yellows.

Terracotta wares have a longer history then glazed wares. Fine samples have been unearthed from ancient city sites two thousand years old. Turned on a wheel, these excavated pots once used for cooking, storage and as burial urns have elegant shapes and designs. The type of potter's wheel used remained the same all these years, as did the way that the clay is worked. Silt from the generous Irrawaddy and white or red clay pounded to a fine powder is mix in age-old proportions, and worked with hands and feet to smoothness. The potter's wheel, as seen in the tiny, sleepy little village of Yandabo, is set on a stake driven into the bottom of a shallow pit dug in the ground. The wheel is turned by one hand while the other works on shaping the pot. If two hands are needed, someone will turn the wheel by standing next to it and using a foot to spin it, or else a string tied to the wheel can be pulled by someone sitting at a distance, leisurely smoking a cheroot.

Down river from Bagan, there are other places of interest such as Salé, a small town with exquisite old monasteries. The all-teak Yoke Sone Monastery is famous for the traditional architecture and carvings. The craftsmen of a hundred years ago had shown their skill to perfection with mythological creatures, celestials and scenes of everyday life carved on walls and balustrades of the monastery. The town also boasts of lovely colonial-style residences.

Next port-of-call is Magwé which is famous for the Mya Thalun Pagoda overlooking the river, its spire of gold shining like a beacon. Magwé is a typically conservative town, with many temples, monasteries and hermitages.

Minhla has a brick fort built by two Italians during the 19th century, in an effort to block the British invasion to Upper Myanmar. However, the heavy artillery of the British was too strong for the weapons of the Myanmar Royal armies. The hill in Gwechaung offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.

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Thayet Myo was once a colonial outpost, and has the first golf course ever to be built in Myanmar. The locals of a hundred years ago must have been amazed to see men with long sticks chasing after a little white ball. The town is small and charming, and seems lost in time.

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The roots of Myanmar civilisation is to be found very near Pyay or Prome as it was called by the British. The ancient city site Srikhetera was once the seat of the Pyu kingdom, ancestors of the Bama (Burmese) race. The Pyu civilisation flourished from the 2nd century to the 9th, and ended when invaders from Nan Cha'o, (present-day Yunnan) destroyed the city and conscripted thousands into their armies. Those who fled settled up-river and later on merged with another race that came from Kyaukse, just south of present-day Mandalay, and they were the first people of the great Bagan kingdom.

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Now, the archaeological site in Hmawza continues to give up remnants of the lost kingdom in the form of religious artefacts, pottery shards, exquisitely crafted precious metal and intricate beads, all to be seen in a small on-site museum. The pagodas and temples there are the oldest in the country.

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The Irrawaddy River flows placidly past all these wonders. It has seen it all. It has witnessed the wars of mighty kings striving to build their empires or to build up civil societies. It has seen heartbreak, happiness, life and death. With a grandeur and dignity befitting a river that moves to its own will, the Irrawaddy rushes past the towns of central Myanmar and through the delta in nine rivulets, pouring its endless streams of waters into the Andaman Sea.


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