As far as Myanmar’s rivers go, the Chindwin – which carves its way from Nagaland down through Kachin State – is often overshadowed by its more traveled tributary the Ayeyarwady. But what it lacks compared to tourist hubs such as Bagan, this majestic river makes up for in dramatic mountain vistas and rural beauty, completely untouched by mass tourism. The best way to explore all that the Chindwin has to offer is on a river cruise, which gives a close up insight into village life at the water’s edge. It was on one such journey that I found myself, on a replica of a ship that first traversed Myanmar’s rivers almost 100 years ago, gazing out over the silvery waters of the Chindwin.
All around me emerald green forests were giving way to towering, rocky crags, shrouded in a ghostly mist, and the blue sky of the afternoon had turned into fiery streaks of pink and violet as the sun disappeared behind the Sagaing mountains. I was on an “off-the-beaten-track” river cruise offered by Pandaw River Expeditions, which operates between July and February. Taking in areas few tourists visit, the seven-day tours set off from Homalin, near the Indian border in Sagaing Region, and end in Monywa, stopping at different towns and villages along the way.
As well as tracing the fascinating history of the region, from the reign of Shan kings to its role in the Second World War, they offer a chance to go off-grid and see Myanmar’s rural beauty. The ships themselves are a sight to behold. With room for 10 guests and a crew of 16, the cosy teak cabins and breezy sun deck offer laid-back, old-world comfort. Pandaw’s ships are reconstructions of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) vessels that operated in Burma during the 1920s, when the IFC was the largest privately owned fleet in the world. The fleet was destroyed in its entirety when the Japanese invaded Burma, but was revived under the Pandaw name in 1995 by Scottish historian Paul Strachan, whose father worked for the IFCDays rolled by at a leisurely pace. I sprawled on the deck, watching life on the river go by and waving at the occasional passing fishermen. I marveled at the early-morning mist and the changing colors of the mountains as the sun crossed the sky. We sailed past lone farmers plowing their fields with oxen and glittering pagodas perched on top of mountains, the occasional tinkling of monastery music floating across the water.Several times a day we’d stop to explore sleepy riverside villages, crowds of curious children trailing behind us like a scene from the pied piper. At every stop, friendly locals ran down to the river to watch our boat dock, inviting us into their homes for tea and handing us gifts of bananas and flowers. On the first day of our trip we visited Toungdoot, an ancient Shan enclave which under the British still had a ruling sawbwa complete with palace and court. The old teak palace remains, though time has not been kind to it and its intricately carved beams are now burrowed by termites – hollow, dusty reminders of how quickly the river’s fascinating history is fading. Elsewhere in the village, time appears to have been suspended completely: Shan children in school uniform chased each other under the shade of crumbling pagodas watched over by men drinking cups of steaming laphet yay. Further down the river in Sitthaung, the final resting place of a number of IFC steamers scuppered by the British in 1942 in an “act of denial” from the advancing Japanese, we met U Thein Maung. It was from Sitthaung that the British survivors of the Japanese invasion retreated to Tamu on the Indian border, and U Thein Maung, who said he was about 12 years old at the time, still remembers them hauling money and valuables brought on ships from Yangon onto the ox-carts that carried them across the border. Sitting on the wooden floor of his home, he told us how he and his friends had collected discarded coins and jewellery and sold them in nearby Pungbin.In the evenings we moored at small villages – some no more than a few stilted, wonky bamboo huts, some buzzing with life as villagers went about their evening business at the water’s edge. Some nights, I basked in the rawness of nature; on others I laughed and played with the children who sat on the river bank, watching our stationary boat for hours on end as if we were a giant, floating TV.On day five of our trip we visited Mawlaik, the administrative capital of Sagaing under the British. The ghosts of Empire remain today in Mawlaik’s crumbling colonial buildings and broad, shady promenades, lending the town a surreal, otherworldly quality. Splendid dakbungalows overlook a grassy golf course, built in 1937 and still in use today, and nearby we visited the Sagaing headquarters of the Bombay Burma Trading Company: a run-down, musty mansion that belies even the slightest hint of its historical importance.The next day we hopped on mountain bikes to explore the rural village of Mingin, which has come to be known as the LuangPrabang of the Chindwin, thanks to its ancient pagodas, such as the impressive Kyitaung monastery, with its intricate gold-painted walls dating back to 1727. From the river, it didn’t look like much – just a few wobbly bamboo shacks – but beyond the riverbank, it is a glorious, technicolour idyll of glimmering paddy fields and crumbling pagodas. Our trip ended in Monywa, capital of Sagaing and one of Myanmar’s most underrated tourist destinations. Here, we craned our necks at the towering LaykyunSetkyar Buddha, which at 116 metres high is the second-tallest standing Buddha in the world. Surrounding it is the equally impressive 100m reclining Buddha and the Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung complex (roughly translating to “a thousand great bodhi trees”), where thousands of seated Buddha statues sit under the trees.By the time we stopped at the brightly colouredThanboddhay Pagoda I thought myself all pagoda’d out, but the surreal structure, with its row upon row of Buddha images, couldn’t fail to leave me gaping in awe once again. The sprawling 37-acre complex, built between 1939 and 1952, has a unique shape, and its candy colors and swirling towers lend it a magical, Disney-esque appearance.As we clambered off the boat to get the bus that would take us to the airport, I stopped to admire the shimmering Chindwin one last time. I realised I had come to appreciate the mightiness of the river in a way I could never have done on land. Exploring this far-off region by boat is really the only way to discover its rare beauty, and the people who call the river home. A seven-day Chindwin River cruise (July to February) costs from US$2800 per person. To book or for detailed itineraries visit www.pandaw.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org