Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s largest river and biggest source of export, and forms an important part of the nation’s economic backbone. It stretches some 1,373 miles, with a drainage basin of around 156,100 square miles, and traverses through three major Burmese cities – Mandalay, Bhamo and Myitkyina. The Irrawaddy goes by a few names of distinct etymology, pulling from religious symbols of Hinduism, such as Iravati, the Pali version of Sakka’s distinctive elephant figurehead.
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As you may already be able to tell, the river has great significance to the communities that work and live off it, and this makes it an essential part of Myanmar culture. In our newest river cruise guide, you’ll get a feel for the spirit of this extraordinary waterway, and the many unique lands it sways through.
What to See on the Irrawaddy
There’s so much to see and do along the Irrawaddy, but we’d suggest you make a beeline for the following gems.
The Pagodas of Bagan
Myanmar is a land of mystery and intrigue, often overlooked in favour of more typical Southeast Asian destinations including Thailand and Singapore. But Myanmar shines brighter than any other country in this corner of the earth when it comes to holy sites. Nowhere is this more evident than at Bagan, a city that not only wows with a skyline peppered by ancient temples, but through the sheer variety and scale of these mesmeric structures. 10,000 were rumoured to be erected during the capital’s prime years, and of the 4,000 still standing, numerous are available to be explored as part of many river cruise packages.
When you experience this city, you’ll know exactly why it was the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem, ‘Mandalay’. Crystalline white architecture… panoramic sunset views… the world’s biggest church bell… the reasons to visit are as diverse as they are compelling. Many cruises also stop off in sleepy river-side villages, where you can enjoy the distinct privilege of meeting small communities and learning about their livelihoods – a treasured insight into how the Irrawaddy provides so much to so many.
Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple
As is the case with many of Myanmar’s most revered tourist hotspots, religion has a big hand in people flocking to this humongous Buddha statue. Such iconography in itself isn’t unique within Southeast Asian culture, but the one at Chauk-htat-gyi really takes the mustard. 65-metres long and 16-metres tall, Chauk-htat-gyi brings new meaning to the classic image of a reclining Buddha. It is a true labour of love, as you’ll notice by the 108 segments that comprise its painstakingly crafted feet, poking out of a gilded robe any master craftsman would be proud to call his work. The beautiful community that surrounds the temple grounds is also a lovely sight en route back to your riverboat, as an example of happy yet humble Burmese living.
It wouldn’t be a proper trip to this region without a traditional Burmese market experience, and we have just the one for you: Bogyoke in the capital city of Yangon. Situated just off the riverbanks of the adjoining Yangon River, this treasure trove is home to antique trinkets, handicrafts, clothing, medicine and food. A relic of colonial Burma, the market hall’s exterior is a clear nod towards British rule, which now seems somewhat at odds with the countless ancient buildings that populate this area. Nevertheless, a visit to Bogyoke is sure to reveal many amazing discoveries, hidden among the cobblestoned streets of the market’s deepest corners.
The Irrawaddy’s course is long and winding, with many stops along the way, so it’s understandable that many travellers opt to squeeze in plenty of standard tourist destinations. But in our eyes, the rarest flowers are also the most beautiful ones – they just take a little longer to find…
The Best Souvenirs of the Irrawaddy
Make sure friends and family back home aren’t left feeling too jealous of your time on the Irrawaddy by scooping up a souvenir or two.
Any visit to Myanmar will reveal a few truths – the cuisine is fragrant, the people are warm, and their style is deeply rooted within their culture. Traditional clothing across the country is best exemplified by longyis and htamein, trousers replicated all over the world for their comfort and ease. They make for a thoughtful gift, but you need to get the look just right. The male design typically has a gingham check, whereas the female styles tend to be showy, with hand beading and silken thread.
Longyis and htamein are popular throughout Myanmar, but to ensure you are buying traditional hand-loomed longyis, head straight to Mandalay. Prices represent great value for money, and the weaving techniques are reflective of the authentic Burmese approach.
An ancient art of Thai persuasion, this skill has come a long way since the 16th century when it was perfected by Burmese artisans and fashioned into a new kind of pattern work. Not easily replicated, what sets Myanmar lacquerware apart is the intricacy of each design aesthetic, from relief-moulded Thayoe Pan Yun and incised Ka Nyit Yun to the opulent real gold leaf of Shwe Zawa Yun. Any of these styles is carefully detailed onto an array of household items, including plates, trays, bowls and boxes.
The best place to pick up a lacquerware creation is in Bagan, where there are plenty of workshops and sustainable shops that sell lacquerware goods handcrafted by families for many generations.
The archetypal Far East image is, without doubt, a woman in a kimono with an ornately decorated umbrella, and it springs from ancient depictions of oriental culture. The Panthien umbrellas of Myanmar are just the exotic stylings you will relish, and they are crafted in a range of sizes.
Buy them as and when you see them to put your money in the pockets of the hardworking villagers that construct them. Roadside vendors tend to be the best option for affordable hand-crafted options, and these are often made nearby, so you can rest assured you’re supporting the people behind the art.
While a porcelain marionette may not be to everyone’s taste, these colourful and authentic hand puppets are interwoven with the very fabric of cultural life in Myanmar. Indeed, the country’s legacy of marionette creation stems from the traditional art form of ‘Ay Myint Thabin’, an ancient practice in which skilled craftsman would design and make lavish marionette dolls for the Pagan Royal Family.
So popular are marionettes in Myanmar that Yangon, the country’s capital, has a museum dedicated to them. If you fancy taking one home, you’ll find authentic marionette sellers in major towns and cities.
Discover the Irrawaddy's Most Amazing Dishes
Cuisine along the Irrawaddy is expressive, creative and utterly tantalising, with many varieties available to explore in the key destination stops. We’ve compiled a few of our favourites, but this is by no means an exhaustive list in a region so rich with choice and taste.
Min Thiha Café, Mandalay
There are hundreds of tea shops to choose from in Mandalay, but if we had to narrow it down to just one, it would be Min Thiha Café. For an authentic taste of the city, nowhere compares to this unassuming hole in the wall. As the oldest tea shop in Mandalay, Min Thiha Café has stood the test of time for good reason, with a delicious selection, great service and clean, wholesome food that will set you up for the day ahead.
Sanon Training Restaurant, Bagan
At the centre of Old Bagan lies Sanon, one of the city’s most socially responsible businesses. This not-for-profit organisation delivers dishes with real heart as a training academy for Bagan’s disadvantaged youth. Here, students can learn the foundations of great cookery while they work to gain employment, and the results are nothing short of delicious. We recommend the giant prawn and catfish curry, made with fresh Irrawaddy catch of the day!
Feel Myanmar, Yangon
If you’re travelling with a fussy eater, chances are they’ll be satisfied at Feel. Redefining buffet cuisine, this restaurant in the Burmese capital has literally hundreds of combinations of dishes available to sample, incorporating Thai, Chinese, Indian and, of course, traditional Burmese flavours. From niche regional specialities to tried and tested classics, you’re bound to find something you can delight in here.
If you fancy discovering these amazing sights for yourself, check out our latest river cruise deals on our dedicated river and luxury cruises page, or give our friendly customer care team a call on 0808 274 6777.