Irrawaddy

The romantic Irrawaddy River has long consumed the imaginations of literary greats such as Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell but remains something of an enigma today. Myanmar’s slow-paced tourist industry has left much of the country unspoiled and only now are visitors beginning to discover the treasures that rest along the banks of this mystical river. The Irrawaddy effectively slices Myanmar in two as it rises from the confluence of the N'mai (Nam Gio) and Mali Rivers in Kachin State and courses all the way through the country’s heartlands before emptying out through the Irrawaddy Delta into the Andaman Sea in the south. Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway and acts as a crucial lifeline for the local people who settle around the river and rely on it for fishing, rice farming and even for prayer rituals. Colourful creatures inhabit the Irrawaddy’s murky waters including saltwater crocodiles, the famous Irrawaddy dolphin and scores of unique species of fish which are not found anywhere else in the world. Down in the Delta, even more exotic animals can be spotted such as Malayan sambar deer, Asian elephants, various species of sea turtle and the old wild boar.

Why cruise Irrawaddy

The sheer length of the Irrawaddy, which measures 2,210 kilometres, makes it perfect for cruising. River boats are able to call at Myanmar’s two largest and most gorgeous cities, Mandalay and Yangon, which are situated at opposite ends of the country but are joined by this fantastic waterway. On the way, cruise ships carry passengers between pagoda-speckled hills, alongside gentle riverside towns and across extraordinary landscapes which vary from luscious fertile lands to remote arid countryside. Cruisers can decide between super-luxurious, modern cruise liners and traditional Burmese vessels. Scenic, Avalon Waterways, ROL Cruises, Pandaw, APT Travel and Viking River Cruises all operate along the Irrawaddy river, offering cruisers an experience they’ll never forget.

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Countries of the Irrawaddy River

Myanmar

Myanmar is a profoundly rural country, where the primary mode of transport is still horse and carriage and traditional values are held in high regard by the good-natured population. The nation’s heritage is rooted in Theravada Buddhism, Myanmar’s primary religion, although elements of local Bamar culture are also present in the country’s language, arts, music and cuisine. Sacred Buddhist temples and gold-gilded statues can be found at every turn and acres of teak plantations lie along the banks of the grand Irrawaddy River.

Hot air balloon Bagan Mandalay Myanmar

Ports of the Irrawaddy River

Mandalay

The picturesque city of Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and has a distinctly regal feel as it was once home to the Burmese kings of the Konbuang Dynasty. Get a sense of their extravagant lifestyles on a tour around the reconstructed Mandalay Palace which, although it is a replica, greatly resembles what the former palace might have looked like. Pass through innumerable ornate temples and pagodas as you climb to the top of Mandalay Hill and make sure you have your camera ready to capture the extraordinary panoramic views of the city from the top. Spend the afternoon exploring the Buddhist Temples of Mahamuni and the awe-inspiring Sanda Muni pagoda which sits at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The gold gilded Kuthodaw Pagoda is equally as spectacular and is situated just down the road from the unique, wooden Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung pagoda which is covered in intricate patterns carved into the walls. For a deeply cultural experience, buy tickets for a traditional dance performance at the Mintha Theatre or sit down to watch the iconic Mandalay marionette puppet shows at the Myanmar Marionette Theatre. No trip to Mingun is complete without visiting the well-renowned U-Bein Bridge. This 1,200-metre-long footbridge is the world’s longest and was bult using planks of teak recovered from the ruins of the old royal palace of Inwa. Take the opportunity to walk to the middle of the bridge and gaze at the natural beauty which surrounds you.

U Bein Bridge Mandalay Myanmar

Mingun

The exquisite archaeological site of Mingun sits grandly across the river from Mandalay. Enter another world at the blindingly beautiful Hsinbyume Pagoda of Mingun, where you can walk up steps to reach the top level of this dazzling white structure. This unique structure was built in the shape of a mountain to resemble the holy Buddhist Mount Mera. The Mingun Paya can also be found at this striking complex, the incomplete 150-metre-tall pagoda ravaged by earthquake 180 years ago. The miniature replica of Mingun Paya at Pondaw Pagoda will give you a glimpse into what the Paya might have looked like, had it ever been finished. The mammoth chinthe lion stone statues were also ravaged by the earthquake but it is still possible to make out some of the lions’ shape carved into the rock at its ruins across the road from Mingun Paya. A more unusual afternoon’s entertainment is to go and see the 90-tonne bronze Mingun Bell which was once the heaviest on earth.

Temple Mingun Mandalay Myanmar

Sagaing

The serene monastic town of Sagaing is sprawled across verdant, tree-covered hills sprinkled with brilliant white and gold pagodas. The town is a significant religious centre situated on the opposite bank of the river to Mandalay and packed full of functioning monasteries and nunneries connected by steep stairways. The most important temple on Sagaing Hill is the Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya, or the ‘early offering shrine’. The temple’s centrepiece is the magnificent Gautama Buddha which dominates one end of the main prayer hall. Make your way up the One Lion stairway, passing the frog-shaped collection box as you go - it was originally believed that Nga-pha Hill, on top of which Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya stands, resembled the shape of a toad. At the top, you will be rewarded with extensive views of the Irrawaddy River and surrounding landscapes. Not far from Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya you’ll come across the U Min Thonze Caves. This temple complex is famed for its extensive collection of Buddha statues which line its crescent-shaped walls. Hidden at the foothills of Sagaing is the lesser-known cave monastery of Tilawkaguru. Inside you’ll find vibrant frescoes depicting the life of Buddha in vivid images, along with images of animals, battles, merchants, kings and peasants.

U min Thonze pagoda Sagaing Mandalay Myanmar

Yandabo

The quaint village of Yandabo situated on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River brings together a fusion of traditional and modern village life. Although Yandabo is generally famed as the site where the treaty was signed that ended the first Anglo-Burmese War, this rural village is also renowned for its distinguished pottery production. Here, cruisers are given the opportunity to observe the pottery-making process and interact with the warm Yandabo residents. There are more than 400 residential houses in the village of Yandabo and those not involved in pottery tend to head out to work on surrounding farms or to catch fish on the river.

Pots Yandabo Myanmar

Bagan

The old archaeological site of Bagan is a Unesco-protected ancient city, peppered with more than 2,200 intricately designed Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries. Bagan was once the capital of the Pagan Empire which ruled over the regions surrounding the Irrawaddy River for two centuries. Regarded as highly as the temple complex of Angkor Thom in Cambodia and equally as stunning, Old Bagan glows with an amber hue as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Hot air balloons rise up between the opaque temples, offering visitors a thrilling way to see the site’s majestic shrines from the high above. Across the bridge from Old Bagan is the quaint town of Pakkoku, the tobacco trading and cotton weaving centre of the Bagan district. This sleepy riverside town offers visitors an authentic insight into the real working lives of Burmese agricultural workers who produce local staples such as tobacco, peanuts, thanaka and cheroot. Moreover, Pakokku is the largest rice market in Upper Myanmar, exporting locally farmed rice to the neighbouring Chin State. Pakkoku’s principal highlight is the Thiho-Shin Pagoda which was built 800 years ago and is home to a sacred Buddha image.

Pagodas and temples Bagan Myanmar

Yangon

Myanmar’s former capital and largest city, Yangon, is the country’s most vibrant and exciting metropolis. Exquisite gold leaf covered Buddhist pagodas spring up between the luscious treetops which line bustling streets packed full of eclectic architecture. Follow a free Yangon walking tour around the city’s pastel-coloured colonial buildings, finishing with the imperial Immaculate Conception Cathedral decked out in beautiful stained-glass windows and redbrick walls. Weave through a whirlwind of chaotic market stalls and illuminated beer stations in Yangon’s downtown area, where you’ll also come across the ancient Sule Pagoda which sits unexpectedly in the middle of a traffic-filled roundabout at Sule Pagoda and Mahabandoola roads. Seek respite from the frenetic city streets at the nearby Kandawgyi Lake, located to the east of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda Buddhist shrine – Yangon’s masterpiece which was built around 2,500 years ago. A fun and alternative way to experience Yangon is aboard the rickety old Circle Line Train which transports you around all of Yangon’s top sights while protecting you from the hot Burmese sun. Before you leave, make sure you’ve also stopped by at the U Thant House, a museum dedicated to the life and work of this former United Nations Secretary General and top up your historical knowledge at the Yangon National Museum.

Karaweik Palace – Yangon – Asia

Best things to do

Shop at the markets

Myanmar boasts a myriad of quirky markets, but none more unique than the Jade Market in Mandalay. Here, you can browse elegant pieces of jade that have been polished by local artisans and purchase your own jade keepsake. In Bagan, work your way around the colourful Nyaung U Market which sells food, clothes and toys and in Yangon stop by the sprawling Bogyoke Aung San Market, known for its antiques and rare gems.

Market Mandalay Myanmar

Try out thanaka

In Myanmar both men and women paint their faces with a thick yellow paste called thanaka. It is made from pulverised tree bark and is believed to improve your complexion. You can find thanaka in almost every market sold either in cream form or as the original wood block. Try this natural ointment out for yourself and reap the rewards.

Preparing tanaka traditional natural face powder Myanmar

Visit a tea shop

It is no secret that the Burmese love their tea. Everywhere you will go you’ll spot tea shops where locals meet to socialise. Start your day right by settling down at a tea shop and choosing from a menu of Myanmar Tea, local breakfast dishes, noodles and samosas. Yangon has some of the country’s most famous shops, such as the Lucky Seven Teashop and the Yatha Teashop. In Mandalay, you will find Shwe Pyi Moe, Min Thi Ha and Pan Tha Khin.

Traditional tea shop Mandalay Myanmar

Give alms to monks

Myanmar is a strict Buddhist country, and most men will spend time as a monk in Burmese monastery during their youth. Early in the morning, red-robed monks all over the country meet members of the public to receive alms, rice and other food donations in their silver bowls. The monks walk in a procession down the street and visitors can join in this daily ritual by offering donations of their own.

Monks Bagan Myanmar

Try some local cuisine

Burmese cuisine has a wide range of delicious traditional dishes consisting of curries, salads, soups and noodles. Ohn no khao swè – noodles with coconut milk, is a particularly popular dish, along with mohinga – a fish a rice noodle soup. More unusual options include htamanè – a rice and coconut snack this is associated with the annual Htamanè Festival.

Traditional Burmese street food Yangon Myanmar
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