A Day at the Mandalay Riverside
Much is written about cruises on the Irrawaddy River but not every visitor is interested in, or has time for, a boat trip. In trying to find new ways to experience the river’s importance to the Myanmar people, I spent a day on Mandalay‘s Strand Road which runs parallel to the Irrawaddy River.
Arriving early in the morning, the riverside was already buzzing with activity. At the northern end of the road, around 8th street, bamboo baskets full of fish were being unloaded from the boats, carried up the shores and then pack on to wooden carts or motorbike trailers. They were then taken to a various markets around town for resale. Curious, I followed one of these carts to a nearby market on the eastern side of Strand Road. The vendors sat on low stools with tarpaulin mats on the ground. Fresh, shimmering fish were displayed in perfectly neat rows their silver skins contrasting with the blue and red mats. In chatting to the vendors, I found that the price fluctuated daily depending on factors such as the previous days’ catch, the weather and the time of year. The vendor boasted that while this market was the cheapest, due to its location, it also had the first pick off the boats so had the best Irrawaddy River fish for sale.
Returning to the riverside I saw several women and children heading down to the water with buckets precariously balanced on their heads. Upon reaching the Irrawaddy River, the women took to washing clothes, huddled in a group chatting and laughing as they worked. The kids meanwhile playfully splashed about before eventually pausing to wash their hair. Other nearby residents walked down with large buckets on yokes, filling them up with water. As few houses in Myanmar have access to a well or tap, the Irrawaddy River is the primary source of water for many Myanmar people. They use it for washing but also boil for drinking water and cooking purposes.
With the sun now high in the sky and the temperatures rising, I decided to drive further south to the middle of Strand Road. Piled high on either side of the road were watermelons so I pulled over to have a look. I found out that, since this road connects to several main highways, the melons here were often bought wholesale to take onwards to towns such as Monywa and Bagan. Each vendor has a few cut melons – both of the yellow and pink variety- so that passing motorists could see and smell the quality of their fruits. I sampled a slice of both for a mere 20 cents and got some amused looks from the locals as I licked my lips at the end.
I continued to the small village of Shan Kalay. Located between Strand Road and the Irrawaddy River, it is only accessible by boat in the winter months when the water level is at its highest. Shan Kalay has less than 50 households, most of whom are farmers and a few who make a living polishing jade and gem stones. It is a tranquil place and I enjoyed walking around the quiet lanes where the traffic featured only the occasional motorbike or cow.
Approaching the end of Strand Road I saw the main jetty for the overnight cruise ships. But far more interesting to me where the massive rafts of bamboo that were being pulled ashore. Bamboo, which was once grown all over Myanmar, is these days mostly found in the far north of the country but is still a popular building material for the people of middle Myanmar. The bamboo farmers up north tie together dozens and dozens of long bamboo pieces and bind them together as a raft. Then several of these rafts are linked together and a small tent is built for the ‘captain’ who guides the raft downstream to Mandalay. Eliminating the need for a boat or engine, this innovative transport method saves money and prevents further pollution to the river.
There were also large tug boats, many of which were hauling teak logs downstream, and several smaller fishing boats repairing their nets on the riverside. I climbed up Shwe Kyet Yet pagoda, a multi-storied white-washed structure on the shoreside, for a fantastic view. Sagaing, with its glittering pagodas, was to my left and the Irrawaddy River stretched out straight ahead to the north. I found a cool spot to sit and watched the riverside: unloading boats, repairing nets and some crew relaxing with a game of cards in the shade.
The sun started to set so I returned back up Strand Road which was still a buzz with activity and then on to my hotel. As I flicked through my pictures that evening, I was reminded of just how vital the Irrawaddy River is to the people of Myanmar. It was a fascinating day out and a truly local glimpse of the riverside lifestyles of Myanmar.
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