One of the rivers of Myanmar, Irrawaddy, flows 2000km and begins and ends within one country, giving it life, witnessing its history 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 ConfluenceThe Irrawaddy has its birthplace the confluence about 43km north of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State. Mai Kha River from the East and Maa 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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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.
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