The Irrawaddy river flows from North to South through Burma. It is 2,170 km long, making it the country’s largest river and most important commercial waterway. As early as the sixth century the river was used for trade and transport. Having developed an extensive network of irrigation canals, the river became important to the British Empire after it had colonized Burma. It is still as vital today, as a considerable amount of goods and traffic moves by the river.
Twice a week, the old rusty ferry boats from the Inland Water Transport Co. depart from the Northern port of Bahmo, in Kachin State, and begin a three to five days journey (depending on the water level conditions) to Mandalay, Burma’s second most populated city after Yangon. The bottom floor of these decrepit ships is full of manufactured goods from China but also rice, sugar and teak wood, the precious Burmese tree. Since the river serves as the principal means of transportation in the North part of the country, the boats quickly fills up with people as it navigates down the Irrawaddy, stopping from time to time uploading or shifting passengers.
Looking from a Western perspective, this commercial waterway might seem outdated, slow and unproductive. On the other hand, it is the best way to understand this subtle and centuries old civilization, as the rich history of Burma is deeply entwined with the nation’s waterways and river systems.