In 2002 the expedition retraced a river journey completed by a Scotsman, Henry Cadell, in 1899. It is significant because the boat was the first foreign registered vessel allowed north of Yangon since 1945 and the first recorded sailing of the river. I believe the expedition was able to proceed, as the government was working towards a softer approach to western visitors and came at a time when Aung San Su Kyi, the pro-democracy leader under house arrest, was released. It was a fascinating journey, down 1,000 miles of river, which took 23 days to reach Yangon.
Cadell writes in his journal: ‘In any one special characteristic the Irrawaddy may no doubt be easily surpassed by other great rivers, but I venture to think that few, if any, of the explored waterways of the Old or New World can be said to display for 1000 miles such a varied combination of interesting and attractive scenes, and are so well fitted to appeal to the traveller’s taste, whether it be for sport, antiquities, scenery, geology, ethnography, natural history or commercial geography.’
Some river facts:
The Ayeyarwady River runs for some 1100 miles down from the eastern Himalayas to an extensive delta on the Bay of Bengal and is the main highway through Myanmar. The rivers width and depth varies between locality and season: at high water (May - September) melting snow from the Himalayas increases the depth by up to 40 feet over the dry season level. Typically, the lowest water level is reached by March. The width of the river varies between locality and season: between Mandalay and Pagan the river is between one and four miles wide. The only bridge on the entire navigable river is at Sagaing, sixteen miles downstream from Mandalay.
The River has been navigated by country craft for centuries. The first steamers appeared during the Second Burma War in 1852 when the East India Company brought four steamers across from Calcutta which were used to transport troops and mail on the Irrawaddy up to Mandalay. On cessation of hostilities the contract for the mail service was granted to the Irrawaddy Flotilla and Burmese Steam Navigation Co Ltd, later shortened to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Limited (IFC). The IFC had its headquarters in Glasgow and built virtually all their ships on the Clyde, mainly at Denny’s of Dumbarton. Most of the vessels were built in sections and shipped out to Rangoon on Henderson Line steamers and assembled at the Dalla dockyard in Rangoon.
The IFC developed an extensive network of passenger and cargo services on the Irrawaddy and Chinwin rivers, also around the delta waterways in the vicinity of Rangoon. Flagships of the fleet were the mighty paddle steamers operating the fast mail services between Rangoon and Mandalay. Over three hundred feet long, these paddlers made the 600 mile upstream trip in six days and the return trip in five. First class cabin accommodation was available for business travellers and tourists, while up to 2000 deck passengers were also carried. Additional cargo capacity was provided by dumb barges, or ‘flats’, lashed either side of the steamers.
At the time of the Japanese invasion, the IFC operated over 600 vessels, nearly all of which were scuttled to avoid their capture by the Japanese. Some smaller vessels were salvaged and put back into service after the war, their assets being taken over by the Burmese government in 1948. The company itself went into voluntary liquidation in 1950.
The IFC developed special techniques for navigating the capricious river which remain in use today: the IFC house colours (black funnel with red band) are still used for the passenger vessels run by the Irrawaddy Inland Waterways Department. ‘Road To Mandalay’ has similar dimensions to the old mail steamers and no vessel approaching this size has worked on the Irrawaddy since 1942. Even with the benefit of modern technology, operating to a regular schedule between Mandalay and Bagan presents some interesting navigational challenges.