Rivers in Myanmar

Myanmar River

Because of the topology there are plenty of waterways big and small. The Mekong bordering Laos and Myanmar is one of the longest in Asia. The major rivers are, Irrawaddy, Salween River or Thanlwin, Sittang, Kaladan, Mogaung and Chindwin. The Salween or Thanlwin at the border to Thailand and the Sittoung or Sittang River, emptying the water near Bago into the Andaman Sea.

The Kaladan River in Rhakine or Arakan meets the Bay of Bengal at Sittwe and countless small rivers are around. The Irrawaddy is of all the great rivers of Indo-China the greatest. Through Myanmar it flows for a thousand miles, in a broad navigable stream, from the confluence in the far north, where, emerging from its mysterious birthplace, it unites with many tributary until pouring into the Indian Ocean through the huge delta.

Born in the Himalaya mountains, follow its destiny seaward it is not easy to describe this river. It’s length and volume, its importance as an artery of the country, its rise and fall.

The beauty of its waters, the hills and forests around vast spaces that bring a calm to the most fretful spirit, of the sunsets that wrap it in beautiful color these are things for which words are greatly inadequate.

Irrawaddy River Ships at Bagan

Loading ships at Bagan


Hundred of years ago the people came down the tributary sources of the upper river valley, finally to coalesce in the valley of the great river. On its banks rude Mongol wanderers grew up to civilization under the influence of Hindu exiles from India ; a civilization to which the ruins of ancient cities bear testimony to this day. About its northern reaches there was fought out the long battle of Burmese supremacy over the rival Shan’s ; a struggle of many centuries and varying fortunes in which the prize was the great river itself.

Shan kingdoms once powerful in the north, and as early as the first century of the Christian era in political relation with China, fell in the struggle, and save in tattered chronicles of small value, their memory has gone out from among their people. Down the river valley of the Irrawaddy – Ayeyarwady, too, there swept the all-but engulfing tide of the Chinese invasions, in one of the earliest of which there perished Bagan, the greatest of all old capitals in the country.

And it has been up the river from the sea, reversing as in India the immemorial tradition of conquest, that the British power has advanced.

Myanmar river Shan State Burma

Tributary at Shan State Burma

Myanmar River

River Temple & Pagoda in the delta

Irrawaddy River Yangon

The waterway at Yangon


Behind Myitkyina this great river fading into the blue distance, there tower up like ” Breasts of Sheba ” the twin peaks of Loi Lem .and Loi Law, and behind these again there fade away into the empyrean the mountains of the north, upon which there is a gleam of snow.

It is one of the most beautiful and most satisfying voyages in the world, this swift descent down the upper waters of the Irrawaddy – Ayeyarwady. The keen ozone of a perfect air, the broad winter sunlight flooding a landscape of romantic beauty, the sense of encompassing infinity, fill the blood with a supreme vitality, and lift the soul into regions of exquisite peace.

The great Irrawaddy river,

flows in serene untroubled beauty, the central chord of Myanmar in a grand harmony of nature. Overhead there is a flawless sky, and on every hand the mountains stretch away to the uttermost horizon in shades of color ; from tints so faint that they are scarcely to be known from the ether beyond, to the rich purples of near peaks and the deep blue-greens of heavily wooded spurs which reach down to the water’s edge, laving their uncovered foundations in the stream.

At points like these in its course, where the dense shadows fall on the seemingly motionless waters of the Irrawaddy or Ayeyarwady , it presents its most characteristic and beautiful aspects, resembling some still mountain lake.

Sixty-five miles below Myitkyina, the Mogaung river, emerging from between low flat banks, clothed in giant grass, pours its tributary waters into the Irrawaddy – Ayeyarwady river. It flows through a district fruitful in serpentine and amber and India rubber, inhabited by a medley of hill tribes of kindred origin, whose truculence and savagery long prevented its being opened up.

The town of Mogaung has earned an unenviable notoriety as a penal settle­ment. Banishment to Mogaung was almost the greatest misfortune that could overtake a Burman official in disgrace under the old regime:

Near it is the Indawgyi Lake, from which the Mogaung river derives a portion of its waters, and a legend of the country tells the old tale of an ancient city at its bottom, suddenly engulfed. Soon after the union of the Mogaung and the Irrawaddy – Ayeyarwady river a new range comes prominently into view, broadening out into a beautiful amphitheatre of blue hills, at the foot of which the united stream must seemingly come to eternal pause and makes a grand south-westerly sweep, and there presently becomes visible in the vicinity of the Shan-Talok village of Senbo, the great gorge through which it must pass, known in the nomenclature of the river as the First Defile.

Here in the shadow of the hills spreads a vast receiving-basin in which its waters must perforce stay their course, since the narrow and circuitous defile is all too small for the broad stream. At this, in the winter season, the river threads its way far down amid the sands which in flood-time form the bottom of an immense lake.

There can, indeed, be few more magnificent episodes in the life of a river than this. For when, swollen with melting snow and heavy rain, it rushes turbulently seaward in obedience to the first law of its being, it is here suddenly checked in its course by the iron hand of the Myanmar Himalaya mountains. Signs of its terrible recoil are evident on every side.

The spectator standing under the barbed frieze of the military outpost near Senbo and looking down, first on the now quiet river and then across a yawning interval to the opposite heights, realizes something of its greater life. Far above the present limit of its waters, to a height of eighty feet, marking the woods with an even line in testimony to its dominion, the river climbs in its session of wrath. In a single night it rises fifty feet, as though it would sweep the mountains before it, and at such times the defile within is a mad inferno of waters in which no boat can live.

For thirty-five miles the river flows through the mountains of the first Defile, whose rocky sides lie bare in winter, the embodiment of savagery. This is more especially the case at one point, the most dangerous in the entire defile, where the black rocks rise sheer out of the river’s bed, threatening destruction. Through them there has been cut a passage, now high above water-level, for the slow country boats, which formerly performed the perilous duty of carrying the mails in the flood season.

From May to October the defile is entirely closed to steamers, and even for country boats the service is one of danger. The journey up-stream is then sometimes of three weeks’ duration ; the descent is a matter of six hectic hours, so fierce is the current. Strettell, who made both journeys at a comparatively quiet season, left of the journey up-stream the following account :

Irrawaddy River gold washer

Gold washer at the river banks

Irrawaddy River

Sunset at Mandalay

Irrawaddy river work

A village at the edge of the water

The Irrawaddy river near Shwebo

The stream near Shwebo

the upper waters of the Irrawaddy river

the upper waters

Tributary sources of the Irrawaddy River

Tributary sources in the northern mountains


The scenery throughout the defile is grand and picturesque, but in places awful to contemplate, as one stands watching the trackers, encouraging one another by fiendish yells that echo through the woods and straining every muscle to gain ground as the boat sluggishly quivers through the fierce rapids now running flush with the boat’s gunwale.

All now depends on the trueness of the towing-line : that gone and we are lost, for the best and strongest swimmer could not live in such places.” Returning in March, three months later, the journey was even more fruitful of excitement.

The Chindwin river defile is dangerous to navigate through of the defile. As we shot down the impetuous stream every moment

Chindwin River

Chindwin River


seemed to be our last. It was with difficulty the helmsmen kept the boats from being carried round by the violent eddies and whirlpools, and the boatmen rowed their strongest against stream to reduce the terrific pace at which we were being borne by the fierce rapids. Our position was too critical to admit of accurate observation, more.

These are fearful joys to which the present-day traveler is not subjected ; yet, for the seeker after it, the swift delirium of a race down the river in its turbulent season is an attainable joy any time between May and October.

One of the best trip to do in Myanmar is a Irrawaddy cruise, the usual Irrawaddy cruise for run between Bagan and Mandalay with several river vessels such as the “Road to Mandalay” and the “Pandwa” both cruises are quite costly but there is no alternative. Passenger river travel in Myanmar is practically not existing. During British colonial times river travel was very developed and used by almost anyone who had to travel a longer distance. All this came to an end when the British disappeared,     read more