MON STATE — The long, rich history of Burma is deeply entwined with the nation’s extensive waterways and river systems.
In both pre-colonial and colonial times, it would have been hard to overstate the value of the mighty Irrawaddy River system, extending as it does from sources in the Kachin foothills of the eastern Himalayan mountain range and winding its way south through the center of Burma until reaching the Bay of Bengal. Its sister river, the Salween in eastern Burma, likewise begins in China and is today one of the world’s longest free-flowing rivers.
The value of these waterways—commercially, environmentally and culturally—remains a topic of passionate debate, brought sharply back into focus with plans for massive hydroelectric dam projects on both river systems.
The significance of Burma’s inland waterways can be seen in the long history of the Inland Water Transport firm, first established in 1865 under British rule as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company Limited. The company was nationalized following independence in 1948 to become Inland Water Transport under the Ministry of Transport.
There are 16,055 kilometers (9,976 miles) of inland waterways in Burma, according to the Asean Japan Transportation Partnership.
Burma’s waterways also provide essential access to rural populations and the various produce requiring transport to larger city markets.
Fifty kilometers inland from the Gulf of Martaban, on the eastern bank of the Salween River, lies the Mon capital of Moulmein. The small city, just meters above sea level and nestled in craggy, pagoda-dotted hills, presents a gateway into a richly diverse hinterland of rivers, waterways and tributaries.
The landscape and waterways of the Same River and its tributaries to the east offer a fascinating glimpse into the ongoing vitality and importance of river traffic in a region slow to receive the benefits of adequate road and rail networks.