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Katha and The Upper Irrawaddy

April 27, 2020 Headline News, River Cruising No Comments

The only way to arrive at Katha is by water, which can take three days by express steamer or a week on a Pandaw ship with frequent exciting village stops and walkabouts. Only by water does the whole romance of Burma and its magical river ports come alive.

And what a journey it is! Steaming up from Mandalay on our smaller K class Pandaw ships, we stop at the great unfinished pagoda of Mingun, with the world’s second largest ringing bell and a ruined monument to the megalomania of past Burmese kings. We continue through a maze of channels as the river scatters across the plain before narrowing at the Third Defile, where the river flows fast and deep through scrubby hills. The sheer volume of water that pours down from Himalayan heights makes this an impressive sight. At the entrance to the Third Defile, there are the potteries around Kyauk Myaung. A new bridge spans the Irrawaddy river here. During its construction in the 2000s, one of our ships sailed under it and a couple of minutes later, an earthquake caused the central span to collapse into the river. In true Burmese fashion, the crew simply beamed with delight, jubilantly declaring that luck was on our side. Our passengers then joined the relief effort, taking food and blankets from the ship and delivering them to distressed villagers.

After several hours sailing up the Defile, we emerge into a further great plain, and again the river fragments. In the monsoon season, we chug along on a seemingly infinite ocean of muddy blue waters, fighting the current and hardly going anywhere. I have seen bullock carts (which are hardly the speediest of transportation!) overtake us as they wobble along the riverbank tracks. In the dry season, we bob through silver channels, and frequently become grounded. There is always a laugh in the wheelhouse when we pass Pandaw Island where, on her maiden voyage in 2001, Pandaw II spent a worrying five days grounded, but the passengers refused to be evacuated as they were having so much fun on board. No cruise would be complete without a good grounding, which can last anything from a few minutes to a few hours. Our skippers usually manage to wriggle us free, but occasionally a passing tug must be commandeered.

On the way to Katha we stop always at Kha Nyat, which retains its rural charm and is home to my late friend Saya U Tin Win with his fascinating private museum of local artefacts unearthed during a lifetime of archaeological excavations in this area and Tagaung, in ancient times Burma’s northern capital, with still traceable city walls and a splendid shrine to the nat Bo Gyi, who casts a protective eye over passing ships — as long as he is buttered up with appropriate offerings. Another favourite stop is Hti-chaing, now a bustling port with roads leading into the interior. A splendid hilltop pagoda offers a wonderful view up and down the vast sprawling river. In 1951, Norman Lewis overnighted at Hti-chaing on a heavily armed steamer coming down from Bhamo. The town was in rebel hands, but in one of those very flexible Burmese arrangements, the government steamer was allowed to moor and trade. On the east bank, the Shweli river joins the Irrawaddy. There are sinister looking Chinese mines in the hills that run along it, with new port facilities with enormous barges alongside.

Between Khan Nyat and Hti-chaing are dolphin grounds, and sightings of these social creatures are frequent. Tragically, the Irrawaddy dolphin is now threatened by ‘electric fishing’, the most odious of practices where a long pole with an electric conductor on the end attached to big batteries is used to kill any form of marine life within a certain radius. In the past, fishermen would thump an oar on the bottom of their boats and the dolphins would answer the call and help hoard fish into their nets, but now they are threatened with extinction by the very fishermen they used to serve. Burma seems to have leapt from the 19th century to the 21st century, somehow missing out the 20th century. Within a few months of very rapid change, people’s needs and expectations changed too. Whereas a fisherman used to have little in the way of outgoings, he now has to find money for a smartphone, a satellite TV and a thirsty outboard motor.

Until just a few years ago, nearly all the boats had lug sails (often a jolly patchwork of old longyis) or in the absence of a breeze, were pulled with oars. There were the gorgeous hand-carved Irrawaddy boats with a throne for the helmsman high above the transom. Sadly, they are gone now, broken up for the value of their old teak. In the 90s at Inywa, just below the Shweli confluence, we found what I think was the oldest village in Burma, with narrow, winding alleys and houses built close together with great teak pillars and floorboards six inches thick, quite unlike usual Burmese villages of bamboo frames covered by rattan panelling. Inywa had the feeling of a medieval village in central Europe. Most likely dating from the 18th century or even earlier, the houses had miraculously survived the twin perils of war and fire. We went back a few years ago and they were all gone, again sold for their seasoned teak to buy smart phones and mopeds, being replaced by clap board and corrugated iron.

Likewise, the steamers have disappeared, replaced by buses that belt along new roads, turning journeys of a few days into a few hours. To replace the flotilla sunk in 1942, the newly independent Burmese government ordered a new fleet of shallow draft steamers from Yarrows of Glasgow in 1947. The then prime minister U Nu even visited the Yarrow Shipbuilders yard in Govan to inspect progress (my grandfather George, a naval architect, worked there then and may have met him). Six stern wheelers were sent out under their own steam from the Clyde, all boarded up for the ocean voyage. One of these was the original Pandaw ship that we refitted in 1998, and Sir Eric and Lady Yarrow came out for the commissioning and maiden voyage. These were all running until just a couple of years ago, and I think our old Pandaw ship is the only one still operational, now in the hands of a Chinese businessman. After seventy plus years, their redundancy was not due to any form of decay, but rather the fact that a road infrastructure has replaced the river. People now bomb up the new highways on overnight buses, Burmese pop videos turned up to full volume, and fatal crashes are not infrequent as manic drivers race against the clock. In the past, they would spend a few days relaxing on the decks chatting, eating endless snacks, and puffing on their cheroots as the world sedately floated by.

To the south lies St Paul’s catholic church, a pretty wooden structure with a belfry, and the jail, both unchanged from Orwell’s day. To the north of the old racecourse, the Civil Lines remains more or less as it would have one hundred years ago. There are great dak bungalows with galleries of verandas running all around at all levels. Some like the District Commissioner’s are vast, designed for entertaining on a grand scale. Here on the Civil Lines, Orwell would have had his house. Some guides will direct you to the home of the current police chief on the assumption that Orwell, as Police Superintendent, would have also have lived there.

After much hunting over many a visit to Katha, I finally found the ‘club’ following a sign in Burmese for the Tennis Club. It is a nondescript and rather sad structure on a bank overlooking the flood plain. Now a local government archive, it had been a Burma Socialist Programme Party office after the 1962 revolution. If you go in, you can see the hatch through which Indian bearers would pass the chota pegs from a servery. It is not very impressive, a low-key drinking den with a token tennis court out front. No wonder that after the introduction of dyarchy in 1923 and the handing over of government to an elected Burmese administration that led to the admission of Burmese to the clubs, few Burmese could face it.

A must when visiting Katha is a stop at the fire station to see the fire bells. Only they are not fire bells – they are ship’s bells taken from Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Steamers sunk here at Katha in 1942. The bells of the Japan (1905) and her sister Siam Class ships came off the greatest steamers the IFC ever built. Each was 326 foot long (exactly the height of the Shwedagon Pagoda) and 76 foot across the sponsons, licenced to carry 3000 passengers and making speeds of 14 knots upstream – about double what we do. These enormous paddle steamers towed a flat (or barge) on either side so would form a combined span of 150 foot across the river. Surely a sight to behold.

With the Imperial Japanese Army hot on their heels, the British evacuated Rangoon, adopting a scorched earth policy of denying the enemy most infrastructure as they retreated. Ports, oil refineries, rice mills, bridges and over six hundred ships of the Irrawaddy Flotilla were denied. In the low waters of February, Katha was as far as these deeper draft vessels could reach, and were sunk here by their own officers holing the thin hulls with Bren guns and detonating gun cotton explosives. Broken- hearted, the company’s officers got in cars and set off for India until the fuel ran out, then simply walked there over a couple of mountain ranges to sign up with the 14th army that would victoriously return to Burma in 1945.

Clearly an enterprising fire chief managed to save the bells, and some years ago I cheekily made an offer for them without success. Norman Lewis describes great jungle-covered hulks sticking out of the river when he passed here in 1951, but by the 1980s when I first visited Katha they had long rotted away. Then in the mid 90s, when Burma seemed to be waking up after thirty years of self-imposed isolation and the country was abuzz with enterprise and industry, entrepreneurs started salvaging the hulls. The great sand island that had lain off Katha had in fact been a graveyard of ships — dozens of them. Using enormous pumps, the sand was shifted, and these hulls were laid bare. There were the Japan, Siam and Taiping. I can proudly say that I have walked their decks. Divers attached to what looked like garden hoses swam deep into the holds bringing up all manner of artefacts – I purchased from them various bits of cutlery and crockery embossed with the company livery and at long last a ship’s bell of my own. I souvenired four Bren gun cartridge cases on the decks and even pocketed a rivet or two. My best find was an actual cardboard ticket, found in the ship’s safe in the purser’s office that somehow had survived fifty years under water. I showed it to an old Burmese friend who instantly remembered these tickets with the names of the stops printed along the sides, in Burmese on one side and English on the other — they would be clipped by the name of the port you had bought your ticket for. The great 326-foot long Siam Class ships had all broken their backs so would never sail again, but the crafty salvagers cut them in two and welded on new bows or sterns. These great ships sail again!

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable events on any visit to Katha over the years was a trip into the jungle to visit an elephant camp. This was never something we guaranteed as sometimes the elephant camp could not be found, even after driving around on bumpy rutted jungle tracks for hours, usually with our guests swaying in the back of an old lorry or pickup truck. After all, working elephant camps do tend move around depending on where the work is. If found, it was important to get the time right as elephants have very strict working times and very precise body clocks. They do not take kindly to be pulled away from their afternoon foraging break, or having their evening bath delayed by the arrival of a bunch of camera-clicking tourists. If we got it right then it was a thrill to see the elephants stacking logs in perfect order and working in harmony with their oozi or mahout, some just teenage boys riding an elephant of the same age that they will have grown up with.

One of Burma’s best stories during the thirty-year isolation was the continued good management and conservation of the forests. Using a German system adopted by the British, mature trees were selectively felled and extracted using elephants, causing minimum disruption. For every tree felled, several saplings were planted and thus there was a policy of renewable forestry that had existed for over a hundred years. Then came the sanctions called for by Aung San Suu Kyi and responsible for so much of what went wrong with Burma: the Chinese exploitation of all resources, including human resources, coupled with the West’s twenty-year denial of basic humanitarian aid. The heavily sanctioned military junta were unable to trade with the wider world and ceded vast tracks of forest to cronies. In went the big machines, clear felling vast tracks and resulting in environmental devastation. For twenty years we saw log raft after log raft go down that river — it was hard to believe there were so many trees in Burma. Today there are very few rafts of teak; we pass the odd cargo of jungle wood stacked on a barge; gone are the great one-acre rafts with whole villages camped out on them in pretty little huts. The teak money went to the Russians for T54 tanks and MIG 29 fighters and to the Chinese for gunboats.

Back to the elephants; with all this, they were out of job and their handlers came up with the idea of setting up an elephant camp for tourists — mainly domestic tourists but aimed also at foreign tourists — not that Katha gets many. How tragic it is to see these splendid beasts who had taken pride in a useful day’s work, being put through their paces to do tricks for tourists. It is a difficult question for us as we are pressured by animal rights groups to not support these elephant camps, but if we do not, how will both the animals and their handlers eat?

Katha also boasts a golf course which unsurprisingly for Burma is situated within the army cantonment area in the lush and lovely countryside inland. There is no issue with going in and the club secretary is happy to take your green fees. They seem to add a new hole each year, and last visit were up to fourteen. Rather oddly some holes cross each other and on one occasion my son Toni, who is ethnically Burmese, strolled across like the scruffy teenager that he was dressed in flip flops and ragged T- shirt, looking not unlike a cow lost from a herd. A Burmese group playing the other way stood astonished, then a very angry man started roaring with rage. I was informed by my caddy that this was the military commandant of the Katha region and he was going to have Toni shot. We played on and then after the game in the clubhouse the colonel, as he was, proved very charming and apologised, having not realised that Toni was actually with us, and we all had drinks together. Learning that I was in the travel trade, the colonel was keen to promote Katha as a golf tourism destination and I obligingly promised to spread the word, which I am doing now.

Despite such forays into tourism, I am glad to say that Katha has really changed very little over the thirty something years I have been going there. People are far freer and more relaxed than they were under Socialism, if less innocent and exuberantly generous, and far more prosperous with everyone buzzing about on mopeds and scooters as they go about their business. The friendliness is still there, as are all the pretty wooden shop houses and the colonial dak-bungalows, that extraordinarily linger on despite their hundred plus years and perishable materials. Like its architecture, Katha would seem at first glance to be eminently perishable too, but likewise lingers on, having changed little over the three decades I have been visiting.

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