150 Years On, Bustle of Mandalay Jetty Endures

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

MANDALAY — Gaw Wain, a jetty in Mandalay with a rich history as a vital hub on Burma’s Irrawaddy River, continues to this day to play an important role in sustaining local livelihoods and linking the region’s inland water transport network.

Ever since King Mindon relocated the capital of the Burmese kingdom to Mandalay in 1857, Gaw Wain jetty has been a major trading center, linking Mandalay and its goods and people with other settlements in upper and lower Burma via the Irrawaddy River.

The jetty’s docks, which were built by Prince Kanaung in 1864, are still duly serving the region’s merchants and mariners, just as the Irrawaddy River continues to act as a lifeline for many of Burma’s people.

Today, Gaw Wain is a hive of activity as porters, vehicles and ships all work to move goods to and from the jetty. While their husbands are busy carrying cargo, wives babysit youngsters or chat with customers at a variety of small shops, restaurants and betel nut stands near the jetty.

“I used to get a maximum 15,000 kyats [US$15] per day for carrying all kinds of goods such as rice bags, oil barrels and other commodities,” Zaw Myint Hlaing, a 35-year-old porter, told The Irrawaddy.

Gaw Wain jetty hosts both cargo and passenger ships that make their way down the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay from Bhamo and Katha in northern Sagaing Division, and from Mandalay onward south to Prome and Rangoon near the tributary’s delta.

The cargo ships are usually laden with construction materials such as blocks of stone hewn from quarries, a major product of Mandalay Division often destined for the commercial capital Rangoon. Cooking oil, foodstuffs, medicines and clothing imported from China via the Sino-Burmese border are also widely shipped via the Gaw Wain jetty.

Zaw Myint Hlaing, a married father of two, lives with his family in one of the small huts scattered unevenly along the riverbank near the jetty. Those residences may be unsightly to some, but for many who rely on the jetty for a living, they offer welcome refuge after a hard day’s work on the docks.

“We don’t need to worry about the toilet or taking a bath as long as we live very close to the Irrawaddy River. Sometimes we buy [potable] drinking water but usually boil water from the river,” Zaw Myint Hlaing said with a laugh. “We know we do not have proper sanitation, but we are healthy. If we are sick, we have traditional medicines. We can go to small clinics as well, if need be. I think our immune systems are very good or maybe the maladies feel pity on us because we are poor.”

While most children of the jetty keep themselves entertained with the usual games and diversions of youth, Arr Mae and Kyaw Kyaw Naing, both 10 years old, collect discarded plastic bottles for fun—and money.

“We are very happy to walk along the riverbank. Sometimes we go to the town to find the empty plastic bottles. We get 1,000 kyats [per day],” said Kyaw Kyaw Naing. “My father sent me to school but I’m not happy at school, so I quit after I passed third grade.”

Located a little bit north of Gaw Wain is a jetty for tourists who come to Mandalay on river cruises along the Irrawaddy River, where luxury tourist vessels travel routes from Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay and Bagan.

“We heard there will be more tourists this season, so I’m thinking of selling some postcards and souvenirs when I’m free with this porter job to earn more,” said A Myint, 15, who works as a stone porter near the tourist jetty.

Like the others, she typically earns 4,500 kyats per day. “For us, we are not strong enough to carry the rice and bean bags. Carrying stones is much easier for us but we don’t earn as much as the rice bag porters,” she added.

Workers at the Gaw Wain jetty told The Irrawaddy that they earned a maximum of 500,000 kyats per month. That’s enough to feed a family, they say, but it is far from affording a life of luxury.

“I can send my children to school but the eldest son, who is 13, quit school, saying he was not happy at school. Now he has his own job as a porter like me,” said Thar Thar as he hoisted a giant stone onto his shoulder.

“Although we earn that much, it is still insufficient for our family. This may be because we play the lottery a lot,” he said with a laugh. “However, as long as Gaw Wain is alive, we will not need to worry about starving.”