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A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond      Vol.4   No.4     July September 2005

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      CHINDWIN RIVER:
     THE ANGRY BROTHER

        by: Hpone Thant
        Photos: Sonny Nyein


"The main tributary of the Ayeyarwaddy River flowing in from the west is the Chindwin River", so has all Myanmar school children learnt about the Chindwin in their geography lessons.But unlike the Ayeyarwaddy, the Chindwin is wild and rough, an angry brother to the mighty Ayeyarwaddy.For centuries the angry waters of the Chindwin River has been a great obstacle for the people living along its banks.During the monsoon floods are a menace and and when the water is low sandbanks bar the way.The brothers are different in nature.

               
Having its sources in the high peaks on the India- Myanmar border, the Chind- win River races for more than 600 miles and empties itself into the Ayeyarwaddy just above Myingyan. Along its way, the Chindwin River passes through dense jungles, high cliffs and deep gorges. Also it is not navigable the whole year round as the cur- rents are swifter than the Ayeyarwaddy. Only special shallow draught vessels can go upriver about 380 miles from Monywa to Homalin with difficulty even during the monsoon.
                 
"Shifting sandbars and changing channels make this river a challenge and the river levels can be hard to predict" the captain of a boat playing the river told us. " There are cases when the river level dropped 10 feet or rose quickly in a single day."

The high water level in monsoon and the low level in summer can vary by as much as 50-60 feet. The waters of the Chindwin touch the banks of Hkamti, the gateway to the home of the valiant Naga people and bisects the Htamathi National Park as well as other towns, before it meets with the Ayeyarwaddy River.
                  
It also has stories to tell about the march of King Alaungpaya to Manipur, the Teak wallahs of the Bombay Burmah Corporation and their life-styles and about the British and the Japanese armies as they fought tooth and nail to gain supremacy during World War II, and towns such as Monywa, Shwegyin, Mawlaik, Kalewa, Kalemyo, Pantha, Sittaung associated with these fierce battles.

The pagoda is on the tip of land where Myittha River meets with the Chindwin River
Kindat means in the Myanmar language "a military outpost" for during the ancient times Myanmar kings established posts along the imperial boundaries. There is a village of this name just north of Mawlaik. A village elder of Kindat led us to the monastery and showed us two Buddha Images.

"These two Buddha Images date back to King Alaungpaya's time and are called Van Saung and Van Aung," he told us." They were said to be at the vanguard of the army when King Alaungpaya went to war against the Manipuris."            
                
In Kindat, the old colonial post office is now used as a school building. The headmistress showed us a pair of old concrete slabs half buried in the ground with iron flanges to sup- port the long-rotted pillars in front of the school. It seems this village has good relations with the Road To Mandalay Cruise ship. Recently the crew donated USD 500 worth of books and stationary to the school in a simple ceremony and everybody was overjoyed. The passengers themselves were much touched not only with the generosity of the crew but also by the dedication of the teaching staff and students alike in this remote area of the country.

A British Army officer, Lt.Col J.H Williams, wrote a book called "Elephant Bill" recount- ing his experiences as a Teak wallah with the Bombay Burmah Corporation and as a British Army officer during World War II. One memorable episode in his life was the evacuation of British dependents from Myanmar via Mawlaik in 1942 using 110 elephants. In the Shan language MawJaik means the place where iron is found. It was also the seat of the Bombay Burmah Corporation's timber extraction operations for the Chindwin Forest Circle. The old District Commissioner's Headquarters building still stands there. A stone slab there says that the Commissioner of the Sagaing Division, Mr. Carey laid the foundation in 1916. A town elder told us, "The town plan was said to be laid out to resemble London!"  

During WW II the retreating British and Indian forces were trapped in the basin at Shwegyin just 10 miles to the south of Kalewa by the advancing Japanese The troops barely escaped after destroying all their transports. The longest Bailey bridge during the WW II was floated down the Myittha River towards Kalemyo to span the Chindwin River, connecting Kalemyo with a village on the opposite bank. The largest flying boats of that time, the "Sunderlands" landed at Shwegyin flying in from Calcutta. War materials were brought down the river to the railhead at Alon when the British forces advanced into the country from India. Maj. Gen Orde Wingate and his Chindits also made history on the banks of the Chindwin River during WW II. Kalemyo was bombed repeatedly by both the Japanese Air Force and the RAF as it was the most strategic town at the junction of the Myittha and the Chindwin Rivers and the entry port to the Kabaw Valley.

Many towns and villages along the Chindwin River are prominently featured in the legends and stories of Myanmar. Monywa was previously known as "Mon the ma ywa" or the village of the snack seller woman and evolved into Monywa. Badon, now called Alon, is the site of the Alon Bodaw's nat shrine and Kani is associated with the legend of the nat called Lord of the White Horse of Kani. Maukkadaw has a rather frightening reputation as the village of witches and witchcrafts for as a Myanmar saying goes "do not eat arsenic but go to Maukkadaw if you want to die!"


A woman sells snack at the jetty on the Chindwin
Stories relate how the village girls would tease an unsuspecting lad by making the mat stick to his bottom when he gets up to leave. But there are also places where it is pleasant to stay.

"If you want to be happy go to Mingin or go to Taungdwin if you want to stay forever" many people say. Taungdwin is a village by Taungdwin creek just off the Chindwin River and said to be most scenic. Also the people there are said to be descendents of the royal houses who fled the British annexation in 1886 and that they still practices some forgotten rituals they had learned while at the palace.

The Abbot of the monastery at Kyidaung Village, near Mingin, showed us wall paintings. He informed us that they are said to be from 1727 A.D. The famous King Kyansittha from the Bagan dynasty was born on the banks of the Chindwin River at Pareinma village. An- other famous personality associated with the river is the nat U Min Kyaw of Pahkan, when he dug canals to irrigate his fiefdom with the Chindwin waters. A nat festival is still held at this place annually.

Chindwin River is also notorious for its whirlpools and rapids. The Chindwin is used by many rafters to float down bamboo and timber down to Monywa and further south. Sometimes these rafts are pulled by launches but more often then not they float down with the current. As it is, the vagaries of the channels are a constant challenge for them. The rafters and the boatmen say that there are three dangerous whirlpools along the route.
                A river master told us" Ahtet hmar Pei, auk hmar Shwe, ale Wetthaike myet hpyu site", meaning that on the north is the whirlpool near the village of Pei, another down south is by the village of Shwe-sa ye and the last is the one in the middle called Wet thaike where you are really in deep !  

Gold can be found in the alluvial sands and the gravel all along the river, just like in the Ayeyarwaddy. Barges equipped with high- speed pumps suck up the gravel from the bottom. This is then passed over velvet cloths which act as sieves and the flakes of gold are left on the cloth to be gathered and sold in towns. But the gold-bearing gravel beds shift from one place to another. Last year it was near the village of Ma Sein, just south of Kalewa but this year the best spot is a little above Mawlaik, near the village of Kindat. Stories are told of fortunes made and lost, of gold nuggets as big as an egg being found by somebody, some- where but personally the author had seen with his own eyes a much eroded silver coin from French Indo-China dated 1876. The owner said he found it near Homalin.

The famous Myanmar General Maha Bandoola statue in the centre of Kalaymyo
The geology of the Chindwin River is also unique. According to the mineral map of Myanmar, the Chindwin Valley is supposed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The mountains that line the river and their curious shapes are a wonder. Many have clean-cut cliffs, maybe from erosion or from subsidence. It might even be a warm tropical sea millions of years ago! There is one place where the locals say is "the place of nine elephants". From a distance (and with a little imagination) the eight hills lining the river look like elephant backs. Our boat captain pointed, "The ninth is on the opposite bank. This ninth elephant is very dangerous and has to be tied to this rock point!". He was referring to a rock jutting out from the river. One could with some imagination visualize that elephant tethered to the post!!
                 
The rocks lining the river also vary from one place to anotherIn the north the rock looks more hard and some are igneous but nearer Monywa they are mostly sandstone. Also the profiles of the distant mountains are different. They are saw-toothed, unlike the more rounded or sharp peaks we usually see in other parts of the country.

But once past the confines of gorges the Chindwin River enters the flat countryside of Central Myanmar. Fertile plains instead of hills are seen everywhere. Annually the waters of the river swollen by the monsoon rains brings down nutrients for the cultivators. The highly nutrient-rich loam is deposited on the sand- bars still submerged beneath the waves. As the river level goes down these sandbars and islands appear, covered with very fertile top- soil. Cultivators rush to stake their claims on these fertile sandbars where many cash crops are grown such as oil crops, onions, pulses and beans.


Drydocks with saw-toothed mountains in the background
The scenery in the dry belt of Central Myanmar is now a broad expense of flat land and clumps of toddy palms and acres of cultivation land, instead of high hills. Solitary mountains are seen only in the distance.
 
"The three grouped together near are the Copper Mountains or Kye Sin Taung where copper is mined.." our knowledgeable captain informed us. "One hazy peak jutting out in the distance is the Shin ma Taung or where the best thanaka trees grow." Thanaka is the paste from a tree bark that is used by every woman and girl in Myanmar as a natural make-up and sunscreen. It is also near this mountain that fossils of proto-primates, said to be approximately 40 million years old, were recently found.

Villages also have cute names. Lovers Village is one instance. Nobody knows how the village got this name. Our river master jested how the girls from this village never answer you when you ask them the name of their village. Soon the river spreads out and joins its elder brother, the Ayeyarwady river, just north of Myingyan, making its way southwards towards the delta and the sea.

And now the Chindwin is no more the bad brother. All along its length pumping stations have been established to pump the Chindwin waters for irrigation purposes. Bridges now span the once angry waves. Passenger boats whiz past tranquil pagodas on its green-clad banks and tourists can now sail and savour its sights from luxury cruise ships like the ROAD TO MANDALAY. The angry brother had been finally civilized

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Acknowledgement
The author is grateful to the staff and crew of "M.V ROAD TO MANDALAY" for offering him the opportunity to travel on the ship on its Chindwin cruise.
Hpone Thant is a regular contributor to Enchanting Myanmar magazine. He can be reached at: :harry@swiftwinds.com.mm


 

 

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