In depth: Land of rice and rivers

Myanmar's majestic Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River is the lifeblood of the land, bisecting and watering the fertile rice-growing plains on which the country’s economy has always been based

Rising in the Himalayas, the river crosses the country from north to south for 2,170 km (1,348 miles), emptying into the Andaman Sea through the Delta, where it splits into nine major tributaries (and myriad smaller waterways), like the frayed end of a gigantic length of rope. Called “the Road to Mandalay” by British colonialists, the broad river has also traditionally served as the country’s major transport artery (at it peak in the 1920s the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s 600 vessels carried around nine million passengers annually up and down the river), though in more recent times road, rail and now air travel have come to play an increasingly important role.

Travellers following the Ayeyarwady’s entire course will experience the full range of Myanmar’s climatic zones. Beginning at the far north, the river runs through the rugged Kachin Hills, outliers of the Himalayas. At Bhamo, the furthest point to which the Ayeyarwady is navigable by steamer (1,500km/930 miles from the delta), it enters the forested valleys and hills of the Shan Plateau. Further downstream, the waters emerge onto the broad dry plain of central Myanmar, the centre of classical Burmese civilisation. The Ayeyarwady then flows past sandbars to the ruins of Bagan and Sri Ksetra (Thayekhittaya), and enters its more fertile southern stretches.

In terms of surface area, Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia. Its population is estimated at just over 50 million, of whom about 70 percent live in rural villages. After Yangon, with its population of around 5 million, the major population centres are Mandalay (1.2 million), Naypyidaw (1 million) and Mawlamyine (500,000).

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Traffic jam in Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival,Myanmar. Photo: Manit Larpluechai/123RF

Three season cycle

Myanmar is at its best during the dry and relatively cool period from late November to late February. This is the peak tourist season. From March onwards, humidity levels start to build ahead of the annual monsoons, with thermometers soaring well above 40°C (104°F) in the Ayeyarwady Valley around Mandalay by late April. The rains proper erupt in mid-May and last through to October – low season in tourism terms. Travel anywhere in the country at this time is problematic: roads are routinely washed away, rail lines flooded and cyclones wreak havoc on the coastal plains and Delta.

Inland navigation

Two rivers besides the Ayeyarwady are important to Myanmar’s inland navigation and irrigation. One, the Chindwin, is a tributary of the Ayeyarwady, flowing through the northwest and joining the larger river about 110km (70 miles) downstream from Mandalay. Readily navigable for 180km (110 miles) upstream from its confluence, it opens up remote stretches of the Sagaing region, now served by occasional government ferries and luxury cruises.

In the east of the country, the Thanlwin (Salween) River slices through Shan State via a series of deep gorges. It has few tributaries between its source in the Himalayas and its exit to the Andaman Sea at Mawlamyine (Moulmein). It is navigable only for about 160km (100 miles) upstream due to its fast current and 20-metre (65ft) fluctuations in water level. It used to play an important role in the economy – as the route by which teak was rafted from the Shan Plateau to Mawlamyine, its export harbour – although teak is now exported via Yangon.

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Traditional boat passing a village along the Kaladan River at the Rakhine State in Myanmar. Photo: Thor Jorgen Udvang/123RF

The lie of the land

Geographically, Myanmar can be divided up into several zones. In the far north are the Kachin Hills, reaching heights of 3,000 metres (10,000ft) on the southeastern edge of the Himalayas. On the Tibetan border is Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast Asia at 5,881 metres (19,289ft). Deep valleys, many of them with subtropical vegetation and terraced rice fields, separate the mountain ridges. The chief inhabitants are the Kachin; Lisu are also common in the Chinese border region. The administrative centre of Myitkyina is the terminus of the railway from Yangon and Mandalay.

The Kachin Hills link with the Shan Plateau in the south, a vast area averaging 1,000 metres (3,200ft) in elevation. Deep valleys intersect the undulating surface of the plateau, and the Thanlwin (Salween) flows through it like an arrow. Once popular as a site for hill stations, the region still offers the flavour of a bygone era in its administrative centres of Taunggyi, Pyin U-Lwin and Kalaw. A tourist centre has been developed around Inle Lake in the southwestern part of the plateau. Fruit, citrus crops and vegetables thrive in the almost European climate, as does timber. Myanmar is the world’s leading exporter of teak, most of which is harvested in the Shan State. Other crops include rice, peanuts, potatoes, tea, tobacco, coffee, cotton and opium. The “Golden Triangle” encompasses much of the eastern part of the plateau.

East of the Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar narrows into the long, thin strip of land divided between Myanmar and Thailand and known as Tanintharyi on the Burmese side, with the forested Tanintharyi hills forming a natural border with Thailand. The coastland which follows this range down to the Isthmus of Kra is not easily accessible, for various reasons, but the coastal areas of Mawlamyine and Dawei are home to pockets of densely populated agricultural land.

Scattered off the coast of Tanintharyi are the islets of the Myeik Archipelago, one of Southeast Asia’s least developed island groups. For security reasons it is still largely off-limits apart from for those visiting on live-aboard boat and dive cruises, and those staying at one of the archipelago’s two luxury hotels.

West of the Ayeyarwady Delta, on the seaward side of the Rakhine hills, is the state of Rakhine. The flat, fertile coastal strip is characterised by small rivers flowing out of mountains to the north, the highest of which is Nat Ma Taung (Mount Victoria) at 3,053 metres (10,016ft). Several long and sandy beaches, many undeveloped, run along the coastline.

The area surrounding the Ayeyarwady (and its tributaries the Chindwin and Sittaung) is the most fertile and densely populated part of Myanmar, and the traditional homeland of the dominant Bamar people, far and away Myanmar’s largest ethnic group. The region is subdivided into two parts – Upper Myanmar, the area surrounding Mandalay, north of Pyay (the former Prome, also called Pyi), and Taungoo; and Lower Myanmar, south of the Pyay–Taungoo line and stretching down to Yangon.

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Farmers near Keng Tung Myanmar are planting rice in the flooded field. Photo: Arnold Zimmer/123RF

Fruits of the land

Myanmar remains a predominently agrarian nation, with agriculture employing two-thirds of the country’s population and contributing around 60 percent of the national GDP. From the later nineteenth-century right through until 1962, Myanmar was the world’s largest rice exporter, and rice remains the country’s most important crop. More than 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of land are devoted to irrigated rice farming, although crop failures still occur, and before rice was available from Lower Myanmar, famine was common in more arid parts of the country.
Most of Myanmar’s rice is now grown in the fetile Delta region, home to around 3.6 million hectares (9 million acres) of irrigated rice farms, with a yield great enough to feed the entire population of the country. 

When the British arrived in the mid-19th century, the Delta was an uncultivated expanse of jungle. Colonists were given land in the Delta which they then cleared of jungle to make way for wet-rice fields. It was during this period that Burma became the world’s largest rice exporter, and although production levels dropped during military rule, they have recently revived, and look set to improve even further with the introduction of high-yield strains, land reclamation, improved irrigation and more mechanised farming methods. 

Rice cultivation in the drier regions of Upper Myanmar has always been more difficult. The ancient Bamar of Bagan developed a complex irrigation system of rivers and canals to irrigate their lands, while nowadays rice cultivation is combined with the farming of cotton, tobacco, peanuts, grain sorghum, sesame, beans and corn.

Minerals and forests

Myanmar has huge, largely untapped mineral reserves. Oil, found mostly in the Ayeyarwady basin, is most important; in recent years, test drilling for natural gas in the Gulf of Mottama has also generated increased revenues for the government-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), largely through deals with China. Licences for further oil and gas exploration, both on- and off-shore, contribute badly needed foreign currency, although most of this ends up in the pockets of crony businessmen with close government and military links.
Iron, tungsten, lead, silver, tin, mercury, nickel, plutonium, zinc, copper, cobalt, antimony and gold are found in significant quantities around the country. The famed rubies and sapphires are mined in Mogok in western Shan State, and fine jade is extracted near the towns of Mogaung and Hpakant in Kachin State. 

Around forty percent of the country is still covered by forest – the largest area of tropical forest in Southeast Asia, home to some eighty endemic species. Deforestation is rife, however, and the country has lost thirty percent of its entire tree cover since independence, both from the drive to create new agricultural land and to extract valuable teak and other hardwoods. Pockets of tropical rainforests can be found in wetter districts, and bamboo, used to construct many buildings, is common. Higher up, oaks, silver firs, chestnuts and rhododendrons thrive. In the central Dry Zone, cacti and acacia trees are common. 

Taunggya (slash-and-burn) cultivation used through much of upland Myanmar has resulted in the depletion of the original forest cover, now replaced by a second growth of scrub forest. In taunggya agriculture, large trees are felled and the jungle burned to prepare for planting – often with 40 or more different crops. 

When crops and torrential rains have depleted soil fertility (within a year or two), the clearing is abandoned and the land left to fallow for 12 to 15 years. In the past, villages often changed sites when the accessible land was exhausted, although nowadays the use of fertilizers means that land can be worked for much longer.

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Snub-Nosed Monkey in his natural habitat of wildlife. Photo:  ivantagan/123RF

Burmese wildlife

The great variety of Myanmar’s landscapes, climates and habitats – and a relative lack of exploitation – should be reflected in a rich and abundant biodiversity. But the truth is, no one is entirely sure how many species survive, and in what numbers. Wars in remote border areas, in particular, have prevented naturalists from undertaking wide-ranging surveys. The one certainty is that over the past century, increased population, poaching and destruction of natural habitats by loggers and big businesses have, inevitably, had a negative impact on the local wildlife. 

The willingness of the Burmese government to demarcate national parks and reserves in the 1990s and 2000s was a cause for optimism among conservationists, even if it is generally acknowledged that the junta’s motivation stemmed less from a desire to save endangered species than to wrest control of peripheral zones – and their natural resources – from the enemy insurgent groups who formerly occupied them. One of the great hopes for wildlife conservation in Myanmar therefore rests with tourism. Generate sufficient income for local people (and the government) in parks – or so the argument runs – and the poaching, illegal mining and timber extraction will cease – though wildlife tourism as yet barely exists.

The gradual easing of travel restrictions in the remote corners of the country is particularly welcomed by wildlife experts because Myanmar’s unspoilt forests keep turning up hitherto unknown species. A prime example is the snub-nosed monkey, only discovered in 2010. Local hunters produced carcasses of the rare primate, which they claimed loathed the rain and spent wet days with its head between its knees to stop water dripping in its trademark upturned nose.

Another totally new species, unknown until 1997, is the leaf muntjac – the world’s smallest deer, which weighs just 11kg (25lbs). And there have been numerous examples of species appearing that were thought to have become extinct, among them Gurney’s pitta, a striking yellow bird with an electric-blue crown, and the Arakan forest turtle, which was believed to survive only in a few zoos until one was found in the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary in 2007.

The species most likely to attract wildlife tourists, however, is rather better known. An estimated 50 tigers inhabit an area of pristine forest in the Hukawng Valley, in the far north. Now protected by the government, this is the world’s largest tiger reserve, though it remains under threat from logging, oil and gas exploration, uranium and gold mining – as well as poachers.

One of the principal drivers for illegal hunting in Myanmar is the existence in the east of the country of a booming market for exotic animal parts. In the casino town of Mong La in Shan State, Chinese tourists like to fortify themselves with libido-enhancing tiger’s penis or bear’s bile soup ahead of sex sessions with local prostitutes.

Apart from tigers, other critically endangered species still present in Myanmar are the Asiatic two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros and one-horned Javan rhinoceros, both of which inhabit the jungle region along the Thai border in the far south. At the opposite end of the country in the Kachin Hills, the red panda is another great rarity that’s been spotted in recent years. Additionally, Asian elephants are present in Chin and Rakhaing states.

With most tourism confined to the river valleys of central Myanmar and western fringe of Shah State, it’s unlikely you’ll spot any of the region’s Big Five mammals in the wild: elephant, tiger, leopard, bear or gaur (Indian bison). You may, however, be lucky enough to encounter the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Resembling a small beluga with a distinctive round nose, this small cetacean has suffered terribly in recent decades from gill-net fishing and water pollution from gold mining in its stronghold area – a 45km (28-mile) stretch of the Ayeyarwady around Kyaukmyaung, where a special protected area has been created. Only around 30 pairs survive today, though your chances of sighting one are good while cruising the river by ferry.

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Muntjac. Photo: Prin Pattawaro/123RF

Environmental issues 

Myanmar is one of the least environmentally protected countries in the world, and since 1988, when its military government opened the door to foreign investment in exchange for quick cash, threats to the country’s forests, water, soil and biodiversity have spiralled out of control. Moreover, because most Burmese people are ignorant of the problems (the junta has long suppressed any reports of environmental issues), opposition is negligible, although this is now starting to change. 

Laws to protect the environment do exist, but they’re rarely enforced if there’s a profit to be made, and logging companies have decimated the country’s forests as a result. Between 1990 and 2005, an estimated 18 percent of the country’s jungle disappeared. Most of the valuable hardwoods taken were shipped illegally across the Chinese border in exchange for cash to prop up the ailing regime while due to the low levels of electrification, vast quantities of wood have also been burned for fuel. Deforestation due to population growth is a particular problem in the Dry Zone south of Mandalay, home to around one third of the country’s inhabitants. What (if any) effect a new 2014 government ban on the export of virgin teak (a trade worth $600 million annually) will have remains to be seen. 

Further north along the banks of the Ayeyarwady, gold and gem-stone mining are having a disastrous impact on water quality, as tonnes of cyanide, mercury and other chemicals are spilled into the rivers. Dam projects pose another threat to the river system. Promoted by the government to produce hydroelectricity, dozens of barrages, including a handful of gigantic “mega-dams”, are scheduled to be built with Chinese help over the coming decade. Opponents claim the schemes are merely a ruse to earn foreign exchange for the government and its cronies (most of the electricity generated will be exported to China), and will result in the forcible relocation of hundreds of villages, as well as the destruction of important fisheries and fragile ecosystems. 

Opposition to the dam-building projects, however, began to gain the upper hand as the democratic reform process has gathered pace: work on the largest and most controversial scheme, at Myitsone in the Upper Ayeyarwady region, was suspended in 2012 in the face of pressure both from Burmese activist groups and foreign governments (although opponents claim that work on it is continuing in secret).

In the rice-growing regions, soil depletion has become a major issue. For the past three decades the military government has forced farmers to double or treble outputs, claiming the lion’s share of the harvest at reduced prices for itself, and then selling the rice on the world market for huge profits. As a result, traditional crop rotation has fallen by the wayside, and yields are these days only maintained by costly, and environmentally damaging, inputs of fertilisers.

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