15 Jan 2013

The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company

In the British colonial era, in what was then called Burma, the boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company provided the main means of transport for freight and people and the mighty Irrawaddy and its tributaries were the main means of transport within the country .Even today most of the cargo in Myanmar travels on boats up and down the Ayeyarwady (the renamed Irrawaddy) as there is only one badly maintained mainly colonial era railway line and a very poor road network.
In Yangon in an old colonial era building there is a Dept of inland Water Transport and the ground floor-visible from the street- is full of dozens perhaps hundreds of clerks at old style desks stamping pieces of paper . The doorman would not allow me to take a photograph of the wonderful "period" scene but it looked as if it was something left over from 1920 controlling and accounting for all the cargoes on the river system.Perhaps that is what it is still doing.
At its peak the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (owned and managed from Scotland) had 600 river boats operating on the rivers of Burma.These were special shallow draft river boats.
When the Japanese invaded Burma in1942 the British retreated rapidly scuttling the whole river boat fleet.
This must have had a terrible imact on the postwar economy of Burma as it would have taken years to restore that carrying capacity.
A Scottish company,Pandaw,salvaged one of the grand old river boats in the late 80's and since then has built a number of replicas to sail tourists up and down the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Paya and also up and down the Mekong in neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam.
The modern boats have steel hulls with a very shallow draft and teak superstructure.They are beautifully and tastefully appointed with 30 passenger cabins, a splendid dining room and a wonderful upper deck bar.To their credit they do not have ghastly luxuries like mini bars and spas-just tasteful period equipment and big fridges to keep the beer cold-something the British colonials never had or wanted.
Today the boats are screw driven by Cummins diesels but despite all the moden gadgetry still rely on "pole" men shouting out the depth from the bow as they navigate the many shallows .Because the river is so low in the dry season and constantly changing all boats have to carry a local pilot .As we meandered down the river a vast array of cargos -- teak,earthenware pots,cement,dump tricks,oil,vegetables passed us on barges pushed along by tugs which run with totally unmuffled diesel engines apparently flat out. If you ever see a group of seaman shouting very loudly in a bar you know that they work on tugs in Myanmar.
Some images of "our" boat in Myanmar.Leica X1 photos

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