The Irrawaddy is the main river of Myanmar (Burma), a country isolated and unchanged by outside influences since the British left in 1962. The river flows through the centre of the country forming the historical, cultural, and economic heartland and offers natural beauty and the main vestiges of a 1500 years of Burmese Buddhist civilisation including legendary Mandalay and the spectacular temple city of Pagan.
The Irrawaddy (also known as the Ayeyarwady or Elephant River) is 1,350 miles (2,170 km) long and flows through spectacular gorges before giving way to jungle-clad banks to endless paddy fields, eventually flowing into the ocean through a thousand square mile delta. River steamers can navigate up as far as Bhamo below which there are three narrow gorges before reaching Mandalay. From legendary Mandalay the river meets the Chindwin River and meanders down to the spectacular temple city of Pagan, after which it flows generally southward through a narrow valley between forest-covered mountain ranges past the forts at Minhla and through the lush teak plantations around the city of Prome. It then reaches the capital city Yangon sited on the eastern side of the river delta.
The Irrawaddy Delta is the southernmost part of Myanmar where the Irrawaddy River fans out under tidal influence and flows into the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. The delta region is densely populated, and plays a dominant role in the cultivation of rice in rich alluvial soil as low as just 3 meters above sea level. Yangon is sited on the eastern side of the delta where the Irrawaddy branch enters the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea. Other major towns in the delta include Bogale, Maubin, Myaungmya, Moulmeingyun, Pantanaw, Pathein, Pyapon, Dedaye up to Twante, and Kyauktan.
The Chindwin River joins the Irrawaddy just above Pagan, and is even more treacherous to navigate than the Irrawaddy and cruises are normally only offered during the monsoon period when it will be rainy. It is navigable by river steamer for more than 400 miles (640 km) downstream from Singkaling Hkamti. It flows through Homalin, Thaungdut, Mawlaik, Kalewa, and Monywa. Below the Hukawng valley, falls and reefs interrupt it at several places. Of great interest are a number of unpublished art treasures around Mingin, which includes the oldest teak carved monastery in Burma. The Lower Chindwin can be miles wide, yet has an average dry season depth of only three feet.
WHEN TO CRUISE?
The best time to visit Myanmar is between November and February. During these months it rains least and it is not so hot.
March to May brings intense heat and daily temperatures reaching 40ºC (104ºF).
The monsoon season starts between mid-May and mid-June, bringing frequent heavy rains until October, heaviest from July to September.