The Irrawaddy – Old Man River

C.M. Enriquez in 1915

C.M. Enriquez in 1915


My grandfather writes often about the Irrawaddy River. It played a large part in his life. Living in the remote town of Mogok it was his superhighway to the rest of the world. Whether he wanted to take a quick trip to Mandalay, or adventure south to a friend’s timber camp in Kabani, or visit the big city of Rangoon or even return to the green hills of England—all travel, regardless of destination, began on the Irrawaddy.

This entry from his journal was written between the years 1949 and 1952. Burma/Myanmar, newly Independent, was still struggling to its feet—river steamers and the pretty little riverside ports he remembered were few and far between. There is a note of sadness in his writing as he remembers a by-gone day when the Burma he once knew was peaceful, charming and lovely.

Sixty, seventy years have passed, and the Irrawaddy is once again alive with river cruise ships, as Burma/Myanmar welcomes the world to her wonders and beauties. What would Grandpa Enriquez have to say about this new breed of luxury river liner sailing the Irrawaddy?

The Irrawaddy – Old Man River

It is the Irrawaddy which dominates Burma. It flows through the whole length of the country, and is navigable for big river steamers for a thousand miles all the way from the sea to Bhamo. It is our “Old Man River”, but as a matter of fact it is a very young old man, geologically speaking.

Burma, as perhaps you know, is a great field for geologists, those who reside in the Oilfields, who move in motor cars, and utter opinions worth millions of dollars. What they say goes, so I can assert with assurance that up till the early Tertiary period there was no Irrawaddy hereabouts. There was a bit of it far away in the north, though it was probably an inferior river to the Chindwin, till later on it stole the Chindwin’s bed, as it has stolen many other beds. Even that northern section is not really very old, and it is due to its comparative youth and vigor, as well as to the softness of the rocks, and to the existence of a heavy rainfall, that the Irrawaddy has the distinction of lowering its basin, the land area drained by it and its tributaries, faster than almost any other river of a similar size in the world.

In 412.9 years, Burma has been worn down (and you may believe me or not, as you please) a whole foot all over. Don’t forget the decimal nine. In proof of this, you will see gravels in the cliffs all along the river’s bank in the neighbourhood of Pakokku, Yenangyaung and Minbu which represent the bed that existed at that height only a few thousand years ago. The Irrawaddy, in fact, has not yet really got down to the business of leveling its basin, and hence the vast masses of silt it still carries down.

During the early Tertiary period the whole of central Burma, between the Arakan Yomas on one hand and the Shan Plateau on the other, was occupied by a gulf of the sea.

B map 1 Marine fossils of a distant age are found at Shwebo and Monywa. At that period the mouth of the river would have been in that neighborhood, with the sea washing the base of Mt. Popa, then an active volcano. Gradually the gulf silted up, and the process continues in the Delta today. It is thought that only three thousand years ago the mouth of the Irrawaddy was near Prome [renamed Pyay].  A millennium ago the Delta did not exist at all. Myaungmya and Bassein [now Pathein], were mere islands where the lateritic hills rose above the surface of the sea.

Well, the Irrawaddy exists now—a broad, dignified highway of very exceptional beauty. What is its peculiar charm? Is it the flowing river, or the thousands of white pagodas on its bluffs, or the long defiles through which it threads its way amongst the hills? It is certainly all these, but there is the atmosphere of Burma too, to which, on early acquaintance, you readily succumb.

Is the appetite for color, for beauty, for melody satiated after a time? As we age, is it possible the sunset does not flare with its former richness; the Irrawaddy is not so beautiful; the reflection of pagodas is less placid on the burnished waters, and the melody of gongs less appealing to the senses? An experience came to me during a voyage of the river steamer, the ‘Lady Innes’, and I was privileged to see Burma again with the eyes of former years.

How many Irrawaddy vignettes came to my mind associated with the ships of an age that is gone. How exciting it was to watch their arrival at night at some little riverside port. What a beautiful sight a river steamer is if you have not seen one for some time, and God knows it is a long time since I have seen one. These lovely ships are all at the bottom of the river, sunk by us as we retreated before the enemy in 1942.

Oh beautiful ship of my recollection! Your search-light, out of the black night, picking up posts and sandbanks, and groups of houses and trees—bamboo buoys twinkling in your beam—foam masses on the river turning to flashing mounds of diamonds—lights, green, white and red reflecting like long, roving tongues of fire on the water, and Chittagonian lascars [East Indian sailors] diving with the mooring ropes like silhouettes disappearing into fountains of pearls.

But there is the sinking feeling inside when at last the voyage is over and you have to bestir yourself as the vessel sidles towards the waiting flat.

There is the impatient jostling of the crowd to rush up the gangway at the first possible moment, as if the ship were departing instantly, instead of tomorrow morning—and the opposing crowd, struggling to get ashore by the same gangway, as if the river bank would not still be there for the next several hours. Perhaps you have come from the back of beyond, from a leisurely life of slow movement. What is all this rush and hurry? What is that mob of people on the flat preparing to hurl itself across the lane of water separating the steamer from the shore? Are they human beings, and if so, will they not be squashed if they fall? Who are those yelling beasts who rush the saloon like pirate hordes to seize your private and treasured belongings and rudely spurn money till you shell out more of it? What is all this turmoil and hubbub? With a sinking sensation we who are the true breed of backwoodsmen, realize that this is civilization at last.

However, on the ‘Lady Innes’ you have the good fortune to be spared the jostling and the hubbub. You approach your port of call with quiet dignity and tie up under the bank at Minbu.

Ah, the Irrawaddy, those early mornings of beauty and freshness, with women and babies already in the water. There is no other scene as wholly Burmese as this—no experience which now I so keenly miss. All that chatter and laughter was a necessary foil to the splendid silence of the river.

How fine it was to sweep down an open stretch of water where the Irrawaddy broadened out and ahead were distant villages clustered like flocks of birds on the bosom of the wide waters – the kine grasses on the banks waving gently in the breeze – water birds sulking self-consciously as their solitude was invaded by the rushing ship. This was the Irrawaddy as it used to be.