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ayeyarwaddyriverOne 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.

The 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.

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.

After 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.

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:
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"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.
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.

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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.
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.

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.

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.

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.


chindwinriverThe Chindwin River is the second most important river in Myanmar as well as being the largest tributary of the mighty Ayeyarwaddy. It meanders through beautiful valleys and jungles, lofty blue mountains rising in the distance or towering over towns and villages on the banks. The Chindwin valley is an isolated area, and less populated than the lands along the Ayeyarwaddy, and even in this country of old traditions, the people of Chindwin live very conservatively and contentedly along this great river. They are deeply devout Buddhists and all they earn in this fertile land goes to support the religion. Beautiful and whimsical pagodas and monastery testify to the talent and often, the humour of the Chindwin artisans.

The Sambuddhay Pagoda of Monywa is one example, a complex of buildings covered with nearly 600,000 Buddha images as well as a variety of almost life-sized figures frozen in time, painted in realistic colours, going about their daily life. The ancient cave pagodas of Hpowintaung and Shwebataung have Buddha images carved out of living rock, and the walls covered with 300 years old paintings in delicate colours. It is not only pagodas that offer charming aspects of traditional architecture combined with Victorian touches, but the monasteries in either colonial style or pure traditional design are a delight to explore. The monasteries are carved and coated with dark crude oil dregs for weather protection, and the interior pillars and ceilings carved and coated with vermilion colour lacquer and decorated with gold leaf motifs.

Chindwin is a river less travelled, and apart from its religious monuments it offers spectacular sceneries, an insight into the quiet lives of the villagers who are the proud inhabitants on the banks of this proud river. Compared to the Ayeyarwaddy, always considered the ‘Mother River’ of Myanmar, the Chindwin comes up short at 600 miles to the Ayeyarwaddy’s 1350 miles. However, she is the biggest tributary of the mighty Ayeyarwaddy and spills her strength into the longer river at a place not far from Mandalay, an old city that is the heart of Myanmar. What she lacks in length however, she makes up in spectacular scenery of lush jungles and sheer cliffs, misty-blue mountains and charming towns and villages, proudly running through a region of abundant natural resources and fertile meadows. Although the upper reaches are narrow and bordered closely with mountains, with few villages set far from each other the lower parts are more populated with mountains standing as a blue-purple backdrop in the distance.

The Chindwin Valley is a place of deep jungles and lofty mountains and thus it is somewhat more isolated than the plains by either side of the Ayeyarwaddy. Hence, the cultures of the inhabitants are more unspoilt, and the towns and villages lining the river have an otherworldly atmosphere even in this country seeped in ancient traditions. Their airy bamboo houses line narrow and shady lanes along which bullock carts ply goods and people. The compounds of their house are well swept, and filled with useful medicinal plants, fruit trees, and edible vines to put into soups. A pig or two feeds happily at their troughs, and lazy cats doze in the morning sun. The people’s lives are simple, but filled with goodwill for strangers and humour among themselves, a trait testified in the works of the marvellous Sambuddhai Temple of Monywa and the cave pagodas of Hpowintaung and Shwebataung.

The Sambuddhai has nearly 600,000 Buddha images of all sizes ranging from inch high to over seven feet. The pagoda complex covers a large area where refugees found sanctuary during World War II, looked after by the Abbot of the temple. The donation hall and other buildings apart from the main temple are massive two-storied buildings, charmingly covered on the exterior from ground to roof with large, coloured figures in high relief, depicting people going about their daily life. In a few niches figures of royalty or nobility hold up plaster placards warning the living pilgrims to have discipline or honesty. Whimsical touches can be seen in a husband apparently being scolded by his wife, or a brown plaster dog sneaking through a plaster door, only his hind legs and happy tail visible to the outside world.

In a separate prayer hall donated by the two Chinese brothers who made their fortune with ‘Tiger’ balm, their effigies stand at two corners looking on complacently at two larger than life plaster tigers clawing their way over a wall. They are the Aw Boon Haw Brothers who became millionaires and finally settled in Singapore. Out in a open compound, a group of women dressed to the nines in the fashion of the 1920s were just closing their silk parasols and chatting with each other: plaster pilgrims that have stood there since the Sambuddhai was built in 1940.

Overlooking this pagoda complex is a reclining Buddha image 333ft long set on a high hillside. It is the largest reclining image in the country as well as the most beautifully proportioned. The graceful arch of the eyebrows give the image an expression full of Metta, or ‘loving kindness’ that one must have towards all beings, according to Buddhist philosophy.

More ancient than the Sambuddhai are the two cave pagoda complexes of Hpowintaung and Shwebataung, believed to be over 300 years old. There are almost one thousand caves in which both the Buddha images and the thrones were carved out of living rock. The natural shape of the caves was not changed too much, and 17th century wall paintings in exquisite detail cover the interior walls. The entrances are rimmed with traditional motifs of vines and flowers, in high or low relief. Figures of mythical beings and traditional design elements are seen both carved and painted.
Very near the Hpowintaung complex are the Shwebataung cave pagodas and here the high cliffs have been cleft into narrow passages that twist, turn, rise and fall through the solid rock, and with man-made caves lining both sides. The Shwebataung caves are not too deep but they have been carved wide and high. The entrances, unlike the carved details of Hpowintaung, have been constructed of brick and plaster and the painted stuccowork represents traditional motifs and celestials as well as a few western creatures such as unicorns.

Another natural wonder is an extinct volcano crater producing natural Spirulina. It is grown in many parts of the world but this is a rare natural find, the blue-green algae growing organically in a nature-made lake. Spirulina is rich in protein, minerals, amino acids, iron, beta-carotene, vitamins B and E. International researchers have found that it probably stimulates the immune system, and may have antiviral and anticancer effects. It is widely consumed in Myanmar as it costs far less than those available in other countries. No organisms can survive to pollute the waters in which this algae grows, so Spirulina is one of the cleanest, most naturally sterile foods found in nature.
It is not only temples or landscape beauty that the Chindwin region is famous for: they also have a durable and elegant lacquer ware called ‘Kyauk Kar’, named after the town producing it in vast numbers. Only two colours, red and black, are used for this, and sometimes flowers are painted on the sides of fruit baskets or on trays, with deft fingers that finish a design in a few seconds.
Another fascinating aspect of the Chindwin region are the small towns and villages that give an insight into the way of life of these proud by friendly people. They are proud of their heritage, and while living with less material comforts, their integrity and faith in themselves give them the dignity of royalty.

The town of Kani has been known all through Myanmar history as birthplace of learned nobles and wealthy merchants. The nearby Mahu Mountain Range is the location of the Alaungdaw Katthapa Wild Life Park where endangered tiger roam freely. The jungles are filled with rare and beautifully grained hardwoods such as teak, Pyingado and Padauk, as well as Thanakha, the tree with the fragrant bark grinded to a paste and used as a cosmetic and sunscreen. The most fragrant Thanakha comes from this area, and in old times such trees are kept aside only for the use of queens and princesses. The guardian of these trees were richly rewarded when they present the cut branches once a year to the palace.

The tiny Kin Village is a place of devout Buddhists who are proud of their wonderful monasteries, built both in traditional carved teak and in brick colonial styles. The wooden steps of the jetty are long, where children sit to watch the boats passing by. Water levels differ hugely between summer and monsoon seasons and the steps offer a grandstand view of the river.
One enchanting town 40 miles upriver of Kin Village is called Mingin, with various temples and wooden houses that have stood for over a hundred years. The Min Kyaung or King’s Monastery is their pride of place especially as it houses old and beautiful Buddha images. Just a short ride away from Mingin is Kyidaw, where the Shwe Zawar Yaw Monastery is the prestige of the villagers. Shwe Zawar means figures painted out of gold leaf on a flat surface, and the monastery walls are covered with these in a rare example of this artwork, which is usually seen on small utensils such as lacquer bowls or trays. Yaw is the name of a large part of this region where fine hand-woven cotton or silk with distinctive designs are woven, and coloured in black or deep red with organic dyes.
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The Chindwin Valley people work hard in their fields, and the work is shared with friends helping each other when the labour of one is not enough. Girls transplant paddy seedlings or help with harvest in laughing, gossipy groups. For their lunch breaks, however meagre their meals, they all to share what they have. A walk through paddy fields connect Kyidaw and a small village named Kan Village, translatable as ‘Destiny’
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The Kan villagers are always eager to show off their own beautiful monastery with wonderful gilt work on the walls and a spectacular carved ceiling lacquered red and decorated with gold. High pillars, also lacquered and gilded in places hold up the tapering sections of the roof. The exterior walls are dark with many layers of crude oil dregs that keep the wood insect and weather proof.
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Myanmar Architecture has to follow rigid rules especially for religious or royal buildings. Laws for the common people have relaxed since the monarchy ended in 1885 but design elements used in religious buildings are still not permitted to be used in secular construction, such as the tapering tiered roof. The monastery in Kan Village is a prime example of a religious monument, enhanced by the old Buddha images. The robes of the image are symbolised by mere lines and not folds of the cloth, which marks the image as a work probably before or around the 18th century.
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Kalewa is the trading post between Myanmar and India, and this town rests at the point where the Myit Tha River with its source in India joins with the Chindwin. Kalewa is right at the foot of the Western Mountain Ranges that loom over the town, the pagoda on the hill and the placid waters of the river. Apart from the monsoon season of June to October when rainfall can reach up to 60 inches, the market of wholesale and retail goods is a bustling place for traders of two countries to meet.
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The Chindwin Valley region of dense jungles also has ancient timber: fossilised woods especially found abundant in a village called Kyauk Hlay Gar or ‘Stone Stairway’, a place where people are still living in traditional ways.
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Towards the upper reaches of the Chindwin, the view on either side grows even more spectacular. The fertile green fields where cattle graze border the waters reflected with the deep blue of the sky. Misty blue and green hills rise high on the horizon, and near the village of Ma Sein, a row of 28 white-washed pagodas line the crest of a sloping hill and file down towards the river. The number signifies the 28 Buddhas that have brought enlightenment to the world.

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The town of Mawlaik further upriver was once a centre of administration for the British government. Set on a hill, it is a pretty spot with old colonial style buildings and pretty houses. Offices as well as the guesthouse once called the ‘Dak Bungalow’ are still preserved and used. The cool weather must have been reminiscent of English springtime, and although undiscovered by the general public, it is a wonderful spot to get away from everything stressful. It was also a trading post for the colonial era enterprise the Bombay Burmah Company that dealt in teak, abundantly found in the area. It is said that timber elephants of this region to this day only understands commands spoken in English. As elephants live long, they might have worked during the colonial period or else they might have passed on language skills to their offspring: elephants are so smart it is surely not beyond their abilities to do so.

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Pakhan-gyi is almost at the point where the Chindwin and the Ayeyarwaddy meets. It is an old city that flourished eight centuries ago, and although nothing more than a large town nowadays, one can see vestiges of its past glory in the old city walls.
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All these old towns and villages survive in this modern day with deep-rooted cultures. The Chindwin River is often overlooked but the region she feeds is a land rich in minerals, jungles, wild life, old cultures and more so, people who are proud to live along her banks. She is a river worthy to be the pride of Myanmar, this beautiful and wilful lady of the wilds

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