Myanmar: The Ayeyarwaddy-river of life

The Ayeyarwaddy or Irrawaddy is a river, the lifeline and liquid thread that stitches the country together. It runs north to south for 1350 miles through the entire country. Villages sprouted along its bank, dynasties were launched and crushed along this river, fishermen net its marine life, tradespeople transport goods, fields are irrigated, people clean and wash everything in it and tourists enjoy the flow of history and local life.

The heat is very strong today and when we say, “it’s really hot” and locals agree then we know it is the start of the Burmese summer. School children are on break for 3 months. April gets so hot that farmers are idle ; harvest is over, fields are furrowed and dotted with manure piles in readiness for May planting. The rains come in June and then crops start growing.

For now people are in high spirits anticipating Water Festival, the celebration of the Buddhist New Year in mid-April. It is 10 days of holiday. Families reunite, eat communally, visit the pagodas and most importantly, enjoy the water rituals. Think of thousands of people publicly splashing and dousing themselves enthusiastically while cleaning their karma, washing away the sins of the year. A brilliant concept: public holiday, great food, staying wet during the hottest time of year and cleaning up one’s act.

We are headed to the Ayeyarwaddy and pass by the ” brown village” home to the black market for opium, gambling, drugs, prostitution in Mandalay district. It is on both sides of the river and is predictably a slum, an entrenched poverty that stains generations. Sadly there are children here. We pass by numerous small shacks that house people who have migrated into the city from their farms, finding work in the city outskirts making bamboo walls, mats, industrial sized baskets.

Two girls
Their homes

Girl scraping bamboo slats smooth

Weaving, hammering slats in place for walls

Everywhere I look, there is something that catches the eye. Sithu and our driver cooperate with my photo inclinations and open the sun roof while I stand up and shoot.

We finally get to the boats, no dock, just down a sandy hill, across a few rotted boards and climb aboard one boat and walk across the bows of two other boats to get to ours.

Shoving off

We get on the Ayeyarwaddy and are blessed by the breeze of boat travel for the hour to Mingun about 10 km north of Mandalay. The river is very shallow and we pass dredgers and the temporary villages that house the workers and their families. The light is clear and sharp and we are drawn to a stunning white shape in the distance.

Hsinbyume Mye Thein Tan Pagoda modeled after Mt. Meru

King Bagyidaw built this pagoda in 1816-1819 to show his love and to memorialize his first wife’s death in childbirth. Her name was Hsinbyume (white elephant queen). The second name of Mye (emerald) Thein Tan (100,000) references the 100,000 emeralds used to complete the pagoda. Not too shabby for the Konbaung dynasty. At the top it is so white and the sun so brilliant people cover up to avoid eye strain. Others choose covering to avoid darkening of their skin, Chinese women are the most committed.I am intrigued and overwhelmed by the foreign names, stories, history and legends that surround what we are physically seeing. I feel I am inside a fairy tale, i.e., like hearing the true story of Cinderella and simultaneously touching the pumpkin coach and her glass slipper. The way I remember places is often by what I’ve bought or eaten. While resting after walking up and down the Pagoda steps and drinking a glass of watery iced coffee I notice the colorful umbrellas nearby. It is so hot I bargain for one and am immediately gratified and shaded by my purchase. I now remember Mingun as where I got my grey flowered umbrella with tassels.

A short walk brings us to the world’s largest unfinished pagoda. The base was finished at 50 meters but the entire structure was meant to be 150. It is colossal. King Bodawpaya had the workers ferry the stone and brick across the river to this location even though the materials were available close by. His insistence exhausted the local resources and laborers. The King lost interest. 50 years later an earthquake damaged and split the structure. I can imagine the populace repeating “what’s comes around, goes around”. Our guide comments that his many “eccentricities ” and demands made him greatly disliked.

Pahtodawgi Pagoda constructed for King Bodawpaya in 1790

We head back on the river and its glorious cooler air. We have a date with a cart and donkey ride around Ava, the ancient imperial capital of 5 centuries of successive Burmese kingdoms also located on the Irrawaddy. Steve and I are a bit squeaky about doing such a tourist thing and it turns out that the roads are also ancient and besides walking, bicycling, and the occasional motor bike it is the local taxi. It is a bucolic setting, our cart is quite charming, our donkey and driver around the same advanced age.

We see remains of an old kingdom in a field of sunflowers, a golden spired stupa in a banana field, a leaning tower and a cute baby. At one point I got out of the cart to photograph a road sign and unbeknownst to me a bullock cart was coming up fast behind me with the driver tsk,tsk-ing me out of the way.

The road sign

I feel I am time traveling, between the information of centuries ago and what remains standing today. As the day draws to a close, we drive past rice paddies til we come to Bagaya Monastery, a 400 year old large wooden structure not far from Ava.

Door carvings of celestial beings

It is 200 feet high and 100 feet wide built with 267 huge teak posts (one is 9 feet in circumference). Loads of ornate carvings recently coated in crude oil for preservation. I didn’t know and touched a carving and I was done for the day.

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