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The Delta

By Paul Strachan, Pandaw Founder


When we launched a Pandaw river expedition across the Irrawaddy Delta in 2017, I was being a bit naughty: we had a ship resting in Rangoon for some reason and not enough time to run a voyage up and down to Mandalay, so I offered our members a week's cruise across the Delta, thinking that it might be a bit dull but with lots to eat and drink they would be fine. When they got back, I was overwhelmed with emails saying how wonderful it was. Our members found the maze of creeks and channels fascinating, the pristine little Delta towns buzzing with life. No one had seen tourists before, and they were warmly welcomed everywhere. There was great birdlife in the rich and verdant vegetation along the riverbanks. We run a couple of Irrawaddy Delta expeditions now every year and they are fully subscribed. In fact, for 2022 we have had to lay on a further two expeditions.

The Irrawaddy Delta, 'the rice basket of Asia' as it once was called, covers an area of 5,000 square miles and in addition to the four main Irrawaddy channels, there are several hundred lesser ones. IFC Assistants were sent there for a stint as part of their training and it was said that whilst no one could ever truly learn the Delta, it would take six months just to grasp the complexity of it. Nowadays there are roads and bridges connecting the main Delta towns, mostly built by the SLORC regime in the 1990s and 2000s to facilitate troop movements as much as trade, but still the bulk of produce is carried by paddy boat. In colonial days over 1,000 of these were operated by local owners, bringing the paddy from outlying villages to rice mills. Once bagged, up the IFC transported it to sea going ports like Rangoon and Bassein to be shipped abroad. In its heyday in the 1920s, the IFC ran fifty-seven different services with one hundred double decker steamers and ten single deckers: all names ending in an 'o': Cato, Plato, Pluto, Braco, Porto, Bello, etc. The Rangoon-Bassein night express was the only service to offer first sleeper accommodation and this was still running under the IWT till quite recently and the only way to get to and from that important town.

As our passengers noted, the Delta people are friendly and welcoming and there was a glowing feeling that this was the real old Burma, untrammelled by modernity. This was not always the case. With the absorption of Lower Burma into the British Empire in 1853, the Delta presented one of the greatest agricultural opportunities ever known. Then it was sparsely populated and mainly jungle and swamp: tigers and crocodiles, not man, were the main inhabitants. In 1830, only 66,000 acres were under cultivation, but by 1935 there were 9.7 million acres planted with paddy. To put this in perspective, in 1940 there were 18.5 million cultivatable acres in Burma of which two thirds were planted with paddy, with 80% of that coming from the Delta.

The clearing and cultivation of the Delta between the 1860s and 1880s saw a transition from a traditional 'slash and burn' form of farming, where land was abundant and famers scarce, to what amounted to one of the world's first great agro-industrial experiments. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the demand for Burmese rice in Europe hugely increased, as did the prices paid and profits made. Prior to that date rice had been something of a luxury, perhaps confined to European rice producers in Italy (risotto) and Spain (paella). Suddenly, rice was available in quantity. Rice pudding became a staple British dessert and curries, made popular by Queen Victoria, an integral part of the British diet. This meant that Lower Burma had become part of a globalised market.

Following the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, a liberal economic philosophy that was to be known as 'laissez fair' triumphed. This discouraged any form of protectionism and advocated a freedom of movement; in other words, tariff-free trade and migration of peoples to fill gaps in the labour supply. To stimulate the development of the Delta, the government exercised a policy of encouraging Upper Burmese peasants to migrate down and settle on the land. Anyone could stake a claim and if he paid taxes for several years, could then claim title. In a society where there was very little private ownership of land, such concepts were alien. There was though an abundant supply of labour from Upper Burma as during the collapse of government administration under King Thibaw in the 1870s, the economy had collapsed and there were several years where crops were not harvested. Thus, there was a willing flow of cultivators from Upper to Lower Burma to settle in the Delta seeking a better way of life.

It took at least ten years of hard graft before a plot could produce a profitable rice crop and the Burmese peasant was forced to take loans from the ubiquitous Chinese shop keeper for basic supplies to maintain him over this period. Usurious interest rates were as much as 35% per year. Once producing paddy, they could borrow against the anticipated harvest, calculated at one additional basket of paddy to the value of each basket borrowed – tantamount to 100% annual interest. Not surprisingly the Burmese peasant became swamped by debt and usually what happened was that once cultivated and a title could be produced following payment of tax (for which the funds had been borrowed) he would mortgage the land to an Indian Chettiar who would become de facto owner. As soon as the peasant defaulted on equally usurious rates the Chettiar moneylender would repossess his property. Then the peasant would move on to a more outlying area and stake a new claim and again this process would be repeated. Fights between rival claimants of newly settled land were common and in the remoter Laputta area gangs fought each other as they seized land.

Irrawaddy Delta 1
Irrawaddy Delta 2
Irrawaddy Delta 3

The Chettiars, a Hindu caste of money lenders, thus amassed considerable holdings of land. However, they were primarily bankers, not agriculturalists, with little interest in the long-term development of the land. Earnings were remitted back to India and little of the wealth generated stayed in Burma. They were the buffer between the loan shark and the highly respectable British banks in Rangoon who were part of international financial markets. Having amassed great swathes of land, they granted one-year tenancies to Burmese farmers, who would move from place to place each year with little long-term interest in enhancing the land with manuring or improving infrastructure like the embankments. None of this was conducive to improving yields. The Chettiars found it more economical to ship mass labour in from South India, whether as permanent cultivators, or as seasonal migrant labour. It was more cost effective for them to transport Madrassi labourers across the Indian Ocean to harvest the crop, and then send them back after, than to employ seasonal labour from Upper Burma. Early on, to stimulate the Delta's development, the government had subsidised the steamer passage to assist with this. Something like 100,000 mainly Madrassi Indians a year crossed over for the harvest season and Rangoon was the second largest port of immigration in the world after New York. The Burman, with higher living costs, could not compete this flood of cheap labour and became marginalised.

This led to a rootlessness amongst the Burmese who had settled in the Delta. Crime was rife. Rangoon had the highest murder rate in the world as young Burmese men drifted having lost the social and cultural cohesion of traditional Burmese life. The colonial regime lacked the resources to police so vast an area and there was considerable corruption when it came to registering claims and granting land titles. The jails were two-thirds full of Indians and run by Indians too. The Burman found himself outnumbered by Indians at every turn, even when he went to prison. Dacoity raised its ugly head once again and on the rivers, piratical boardings of IFC vessels were not unknown. All this came to a head in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression. Overnight, mills and plantations closed down, the ships stopped sailing and there was mass unemployment. This led to rioting in Rangoon and the mass slaughter of Indians over a dispute about stevedoring in the port. A riot in the Rangoon jail led to its capture by its inmates protesting over the brutality of the Indian guards. Maurice Collis described how the colonial regime was powerless to control it and resorted to the influence of a powerful Indian businessman.

Power in colonial Burma, particularly Lower Burma, was essentially divvied up between the European clubs, the Hindu castes, Moslem sects and Chinese clans. The Europeans sat in their clubs and did not dirty their hands, leaving the castes, sects and clans to run things. European bankers, brokers, lawyers and the great firms like the Steel Brothers or the Bombay Burmah relied on an Indian human resource. Being part of an international network, they could raise finance for investment within the country and export commodities to a globalised market. The big banks let the Chettiars handle the unseemly side of finance whilst they handled top tier investments and international transactions. The IFC, with near 100% Indian crew on their ships, financed by Glasgow money, paid out dividends to its investors in Scotland, not Burma. The Burmese were left out of all this. Their traditional village structure based around the monastery had collapsed and they were neither of the merchant class nor the official class. With the exile of the king and collapse of a traditional feudal structure, they had neither status nor position in society. By the 1930s this was changing, but it was too late. They were victims of that liberal laissez faire philosophy and the rootless bands of dispossessed Burmese paddling through the Delta creeks were rendered landless by an over rapid globalisation and a brutal system of agro industrialisation.

Not all businessmen were heartless: the Macgregor of the merchants Darwood and Macgregor left half his vast fortune to the poor of Rangoon and the other half to the poor of Glasgow. Rangoon University, cradle of the independence movement, was built with donations from the big European companies and young graduates found ready employment with them. The 'heaven born' Indian Civil Servants did perhaps represent the ultimate irony, as Maurice Collis pointed out, being mainly Oxbridge educated in the best of liberal traditions. Essentially humane men deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Burmese, they took their orders from London where the influential and powerful city directors ensured colonial policy was entirely directed towards ensuring efficient trading conditions rather than development and self-determination. As Collis was to say, the somewhat patronising attitude of the colonial administrators was that they were “trustees managing the estate of a minor”. By the 1930s, many of the young ICS men were influenced by the rise of Fabian socialism and were dedicated to developing democratic institutions. They lobbied endlessly, eventually successfully in 1936, for a full separation from India. Young British academics who came out to teach in the new university in the 1930s were progressive rather than reactionary. The economist JS Furnivall set up a Fabian book club for his students that had a considerable influence on the growth of Burmese nationalism. The fact that the U Nu administration was a doctrinaire socialist one after independence may be attributed to Furnivall's huge influence. Interestingly on 'separation' in 1936 members of the elite ICS were offered jobs back in India and not one left, despite the career disadvantages of staying on with the inferior Burma Civil Service.

The ultimate demonstration of Burmese discontent was the Saya San rebellion that started in Tharawaddy in December 1930 and continued well into 1932. This was a spontaneous outbreak unconnected to the intellectual nationalist movements in Rangoon that had shadowed the Indian Congress movement. Ostensibly about tax demands in a time of dwindling income, the 'Galon King' as Saya San styled himself looked to the trappings of the old Burmese court and Buddhist mysticism. The rebellion quickly spread across the Delta as Saya San's movement took on a messianic dimension. The government were forced to employ their entire garrison of just over 8,000 troops supported by the Delta Karens. A further 3,000 troops including a British battalion had to be drafted in from India to quell this outbreak. It should be noted that the majority of the Galon Army was unarmed and trusted in the power of their tattoos to protected them from British bullets. Eventually Saya San was captured and executed but even after three years of mopping up, the movement fragmented into dacoit bands. In the post war anarchy, these bands transferred their aspirations from celestial fantasy to the hard realities of the Burma Communist Party and its civil war with the newly independent Burma government.

Irrawaddy Delta 4
Irrawaddy Delta 5
Irrawaddy Delta 6

Westerners find it difficult to understand the hatred of Indians in Burma today. Even the gentlest, most charming, most learned Burman is filled with what seems like an irrational loathing for the Indian. In the 1960s when General Ne Win nationalised all large Indian businesses and seized their property, anticipating Idi Amin by a decade, there was an exodus of Indians for India. Soldiers stripped rich Indian ladies of their jewellery as they embarked on evacuation flights to India: they were not going to be allowed to steal away the riches of Burma. Scores were being settled.

The worst manifestation of this hatred of all things Indian was the Burma army's 2017 counter insurgent operations in the Arakan, not to mention the vendettas of the Arakan Army who wanted independence from Burma and to return the Rohyingya, as Bengali migrants have styled themselves, to Bangladesh. Over a hundred years since the Indian settlement of the Delta there continues to be violent outbreaks against Moslem communities of Indian origin. The worst was a massacre in Meiktilla in 2013 and this problem has escalated under an unsavoury new movement of militant Buddhism. It is like the ever-proud Burmese still seek vengeance for, not so much the perceived Indian plundering of their country, but more significantly the loss of face they endured becoming the underdog. They had been swamped by a flood tide of Indianisation which at that stage of their development, they lacked the skills and experience to compete with.

Ultimately the British, with their liberal laissez faire economic and social absolutism, were to blame. Whilst the official colonial policy was to encourage Burmese farmers in the Delta, they did nothing to regulate the usurious exploitation of the Chinese and Chettiar money lenders. The land grab became uncontrollable and policing ineffective. The Burmese, used to seeking justice before a village headman, found little redress in the British judicial system with its courts and lawyers who were mainly Indians exacting high fees. Everywhere you looked were Indians – tilling the soil and reaping the harvest, manning the flotilla boats, policemen, lawyers, sepoy soldiers, money lenders and bankers, rice brokers and shop owners. By 1931 there was over one million Indians in Burma, equivalent to 10% of the total population of Lower Burma, and in Rangoon over 50% were Indian. Of these, over 65% had not been born in Burma so within say thirty years, over 650,000 had made the crossing. This does not include seasonal labour that was not included in the census. The British had encouraged this Indian plantation as the quickest way to agro-industrialise this region, but the consequences are still being felt today.

In Rangoon, the Rice Board monitored the export of rice and took a levy and this revenue was entirely spent on infrastructure development. So it would be wrong to say that colonial policy was exploitative. Whilst little was done to protect the Burman from usury, considerable investment in education resulted in a country-wide high school system that displaced the village kyaung monastic schools, but equipped the Burmese for the modern world. In Rangoon, the elite schools like St Johns and St Pauls were run by Catholic orders for predominantly Buddhist pupils. The development of the Rangoon College founded in 1878 into a university in 1920, as said funded by donations from British companies, led to a boom in education, with young graduates either entering the big companies or the government administration. Ironically the nationalist movement arose from this, leading to eventual independence and nationalisation of these commercial concerns who had fostered the rise of a westernised class of Burman. Wealthier students studied in the universities of India or the United Kingdom, many choosing law and being called to the bar. Of these a number came from Delta landowning families who had amassed fortunes and moved to Rangoon.

In London, deep in a city office building, was the Rice Room. Here in secrecy, white-coated scientists awaited samples of each year's crop, flown in from Rangoon, for analysis of quality and yield. The offices belonged to Steel Brothers who were the largest buyers of rice in the Delta with their great mills along the Pazundaung Creek. Founded by another Scot, William Strang Steel, this company traded in commodities including oil, teak and paddy. After the harvest, over one thousand barges under sail would drift up the Rangoon in the moonlight river laden with the year's crop. Along the jetties, Indian brokers auctioned off the contents to the European rice buyers for milling and export abroad. To give an idea of the scale of this operation, in the 1920s Steel Brothers had twenty-eight sea going cargo ships in the Rangoon port simultaneously loading rice. Without this rice, India would have starved.

Steel Brothers expanded into what might today be called a multi-national with operations all over the world and thus survived Independence and the subsequent collapse of trade within Burma. Yet despite its scale, it was perhaps more sympathetic to the Burmese peasant than the Chettiar. As smaller localised mills were set up across the Delta by independent operators, taking a large share away from the greater Rangoon mills, the young European assistants were despatched across the Delta to set up rice buying stations to buy direct from the cultivator, missing out the Indian brokers and millers who had been offering lower prices. Speaking Burmese and living amongst the Burmese, they were in tune with the land. In fact, one group of young assistants as a hobby took up paddy farming for themselves and thus had a first-hand understanding of coming yields and harvest dates. Something no Chettiar in his counting house would never have achieved.

Irrawaddy Delta 7
Irrawaddy Delta 8
Irrawaddy Delta 9

Just how strong the Burmese claim to Lower Burma was remains questionable. The Burmese or Myan, of Tibeto-Burmese stock, migrated down the Irrawaddy valley from south-west China in the early centuries AD and occupied the Irrawaddy valley to the north of the Delta at Prome and as far north as Tagaung on the Upper Irrawaddy, and, of course, the rich Chindwin valley. Southern Burma was occupied by the Mon people, who had been there long before the Myan made their entry into the Irrawaddy valley. Mon city states along the southern seaboard traded with India and through them Indian religious sects, including Buddhism, permeated into South-East Asia. Over a period of about seven hundred-and-fifty years, power swung from the Mon to the Burmese and back again like a pendulum. When the Burmese were on the up, the Mon were down and vice versa: Anawratha of Pagan in the 11th century invades the Mon country and captures Thaton; Pagan falls to the Mongols in the 13th century and the Mons enjoy a cultural renaissance under the Hanthawaddy kingdom; in the 16th century, the Burmese resurge and crush the Mon again; in the mid-18th century the Burmese kingdom implodes and a second Hanthawaddy kingdom emerges, with the assistance of the French and sacks Ava in 1752; this success is short lived and in 1757 a new Burmese dynasty, the Konbaung, invade and decimate the Mon south. Thereafter follows a period of enslavement and genocide where, with the exception of pockets on the Martaban coast and in the Siamese territory of Tenasserim, the Mon all but disappear from Lower Burma. Yet, other than investing the port of Rangoon, with its famous Dagon shrine, the Konbaung Burmese felt no need to settle the region: wars were fought not for land, but for people. As with the several Burmese conquests of Siam, no attempt was made to colonise or even administer captured territory, rather the objective was the mass transportation of the surviving populace back to Burma to maintain an ever-dwindling labour force. Ever dwindling in the face of ever prevalent tropical disease, megalomaniacal pagoda building, and incessant warfare.

The French had been in Syriam or Thanlin since 1727 when Dupleix realised the possibilities of ship building in Burma with its abundant supplies of teak. With the Mon rebellion of 1740, they were forced to withdraw and in 1752, following a Mon diplomatic mission to Pondicherry canvassing support. Sieur de Bruno was despatched with warships, musketeers and artillery to assist Mon and seize the Irrawaddy Delta for the French. Much to the ire of the French, the British had established a foothold on the edge of the Delta on the island of Negrais in 1753. They did perhaps back the wrong horse and Sieur de Bruno was captured and roasted alive by the victorious Burmese. His troops were treated more humanely, absorbed into the Burmese army and eventually given Burmese wives and land in the Mu and Chindwin valleys where there are still Catholic villages to this day. But neither the French nor British were the first Europeans to establish footholds in the Delta.

The British and the French in the 18th century were not the first Europeans to meddle in the affairs of Burma. From the 16th century onwards, Portuguese mercenaries and adventurers had been active in the area, the most notorious of which was Felipe de Brito appointed by the Burmese governor of Syriam in 1599 and subsequently rebelled against his masters, desecrating Buddhist shrines, and was eventually captured and suffered impalement. The Portuguese were at the forefront of the Toungoo king's extensive military campaigns to re-establish the Burmese empire that had fallen in the 13th century, including the conquest of the Mons and Siamese. Portuguese influence in court was considerable and it is estimated that over 5,000 Portuguese were settled in Burma under the ahmudan system where regiments lived on estates provided for their support. They were encouraged to marry and by the mid-17th century, these by now mixed-race regiments of artillery and musketeers were mixed blood, known as Bayingyi (from the Persian 'feringee'), and are still listed as one of Burma's official ethnic groups today. The Bayingyi continued as an integral part of the Burmese army right to the fall of the Konbaung in 1886 and remained staunchly Catholic as their descendants are today. Their regimental banners even had a cross on them. I recently stumbled on a Bayingyi 'city village' in the suburbs of Mandalay arranged around a church and convent. Prosperous, their main business activity appeared to be as undertakers. Sadly, when Ne Win banned foreign names in the 1960s and forced all non-Burmese to take Burmese names, they lost much of their sense of identity and when I asked if they remembered their family names, expecting a chorus of de Souzas, Pereiras and Coelhos they took to scratching their heads.

With the widening of the Twane Canal in 1935 to allow larger steamers through, two days were knocked off the express steamer voyage from Rangoon to Mandalay, bringing it down to five days. Steamers no longer had to make a great detour round the edge of the Delta to reach the main channel taking them north. There are in fact four large channels, the Bathein, Pyapone, Bogale and Toe rivers, and these can be a mile wide. Interconnecting channels and creeks are uncountable. (Interestingly the Delta gets larger each year by 1,000 hectares with the dumping of silt.) The great arms of the Delta are actually quite boring to cruise along but the lesser interconnecting channels fascinating. The region is densely populated, and these channels are full of life with nearly all movement of people and goods by water bourn craft of various sorts. Scott O'Conner who travelled with the Irrawaddy Flotilla around 1900 describes the popular pastime of everyone from kids to old folk getting in their tiny canoes and surfing in the wake of a great three-hundred-foot long paddle steamer. These mighty vessels, a flat on either side giving them a combined beam of one hundred and fifty feet, filled the channels from bank to bank. Imagine the shock and excitement of seeing one of these coming around the bend! Whether in a canoe, country boat or creek steamer, you got out of the way fast as such a thing is unstoppable, particularly when racing downstream on ten a ten-knot current. At such speeds, a distant dot suddenly becomes very big very quickly!

Today our Rangoon to Mandalay ships follow the same route as the express steamers stopping at larger Delta towns of Maubin and Donabyu which are full of buzz and so typically Burmese with their markets, tea shops and monasteries. It is hard to believe that a hundred years ago they were hubs of Indian counting houses and brokerages, the shops all owned by Chinamen, and that a couple of hundred years before that you were more likely to meet a Portuguese bearing an arquebus than a dah wielding Burman. Donabyu is where the great Burmese general Mahabandula fell to a stray British rocket in the 1824 war. Had he been luckier, Burmese history might have taken a different course.

Though there was a railhead in Prome reducing the journey to Mandalay by a further two days, and indeed a railway from Rangoon to Mandalay, most people with time on their hands, whether tourists or businessmen, preferred to make the whole trip by ship simply because it was so much fun. Also, the first class accommodation was so good it was considered a relaxing, tranquil experience and something of a holiday. As William Somerset Maugham was to write of his voyage by IF steamer “the immense violence of slow-moving water gave me an exquisite sense of inviolate peace”.

Irrawaddy Delta 10
Irrawaddy Delta 11
Irrawaddy Delta 12

For the young IFC assistant, not long out from Scotland and sent for six months to learn the Delta, there would have been less inviolate peace and quite a lot of excitement. Rover, the company's inspection launch could hit thirty-two knots was the fastest boat in Burma. Hiding up creeks, they could pounce on passing steamers and be alongside and on board before the Lascar master and his clerk had time to sort his ledgers. With the collusion of passengers, sometimes the entire complement, they would undercharge for passage and not issuing tickets, omit entry in their ledger. It was a matter of a simple ticket check and cash count, but with over a hundred vessels it was a game of cat and mouse. A highly efficient bush telegraph extended right across the Delta and masters were well-informed of Rover's whereabouts. The point was it kept them on their toes and stopped them going too far.

With the Japanese invasion of 1942, one million Indians attempted to make their escape, fearful of reprisals from Burmese nationalists and indeed the population at large. Whilst the tiny European population of under 50,000 were evacuated by ship to Calcutta or up-river on Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers and out through the Chindwin valley, the Indian population walked out over the Arakan Yoma to try and take ship from one of the Arakan coastal ports. The survival rate was appalling and as monsoon rains broke, thousands died along the way from malaria and cholera. There were stampedes with many casualties as they fought to get on board the few steamers available to take them across the Bay of Bengal. Those left behind mainly died of hunger and disease, abandoned by their British protectors. There is no accurate count of how many made it to India and how many were left behind but more fell into the latter category than the former and of those, more perished than survived.

During the war much of the Delta had been abandoned, and in its aftermath as civil war raged through the land, the Karen took control of much of the area as part of its rebellion. There had been Karen Christian villages in the Delta since the earliest days of British rule and in the land grab of the 1860s and 1870s, when pitched battles were being fought between rival gangs, these villages had been oases of law and order under the strict discipline of their pastors. At independence a large part of the Burma army was in fact Karen, trained by the British and well led by battle-hardened Karen officers. They formed the forerunner of today's KNU or Karen National Union, in an attempt to carve out a Karen free state within the Delta area. At one point the front line between the Karen and Burma armies was drawn through the Rangoon suburbs with the Karen in Insein and the Burmese controlling the city lobbing shells at each other. Then came the insurgency of the Burma Communist Party and today as you drive through Delta towns and villages you will see every police station is a mini fortress dating from these days where the government's sway was light and Communist guerrillas at large.

Following the 1962 Revolution, when Burma under General Ne Win embarked on one of the weirdest socialist experiments the world has yet seen, the Delta lands were nationalised into cooperatives and land ownership abolished. During this period, Burma ceased to be the largest exporter in the world and was even said to have to import rice. The Burmese cultivator did not take to a communal system and disincentivised, reduced his output to the needs of immediate family or hoarded rice to sell on the black market. Other factors came into play in the decline of Burma rice production. Other rice producing countries, like Thailand or Vietnam, mechanised and took advantage of new developments in fertilisers and higher yielding new strains of rice, whilst Burma fell behind during three decades of self-isolation. A further twenty years of sanctions, vociferously advocated by Aung San Suu Kyi, in my opinion did more damage to the country than the Ne Win's 'Burmese Road to Socialism' (as they opened the border to a Chinese emigration far larger than the Indian one under the British and even more brutal in exploitation of Burmese resources, both human and material) served only to further reduce rice yields. India, having been the largest single importer of Burmese rice, was to become self-sufficient thanks to this post war agricultural revolution that Burma missed out on. Another consideration in the decline of Burma as a rice exporter is demographic. Between the 1931 census and the present, the population of Burma has more than quadrupled — there became many more mouths to feed at home.

Irrawaddy Delta 13
Irrawaddy Delta 14
Irrawaddy Delta 15

The landfall of Cyclone Nargis along the Delta coast in May 2008 brought Burma to the world's attention. A million people were made homeless overnight, their livestock lost, their farmland and wells flooded with salt-water. There were over 138,000 fatalities. The military government did little and the world grew angry. The wife of the senior general announced in public that this was the working of divine karma on the wicked Christians who occupy much of the Delta. The Americans sent warships, genuinely wanting to assist. The generals hid in their bunkers. The pressure was on to allow aid agencies access and the sanctions and embargos were lifted. Eventually under the pressure of the UN secretary general, the generals were persuaded that the Americans were not going to invade and aid was allowed to flow in. Nargis changed much in Burma: with the easing of the Suu Kyi sanctions the country became more prosperous overnight. Aid agencies opened up all over Rangoon and foreigners started pouring in. Whilst it is arguable just how effective such aid programs are, the point was that Nargis had opened the door. The generals became less paranoid, and a more moderate and reforming administration under General Thein Win, the unsung Gorbachev of Burma, paved the way for a return to the democratic process.

Our 'round the Delta' expedition lasts a week and weaves through connecting channels creeks and rivers visiting all the main Delta towns like Pyabone, Bogale and Bassein. It is hard to believe that just twelve years ago, all this lay in ruins. The ever-industrious Burmese managed to get back to some form of normality remarkably quickly and mainly through their own efforts and the help of their fellow countrymen. Pandaw passengers donated funds for a Nargis orphanage and now most of those kids have grown up and gone off to college or got jobs. During the emergency period, our crews took two of our ships down to the Delta where they were converted by a UK medical charity into floating hospitals. Three babies were born on Pandaw II. In Burmese culture, it is considered incredibly lucky for a ship to have a baby born on it. In the old days, Burmese ship owners would encourage pregnant women to have their babies on board their ships and then took on the financial responsibility for the upbringing of the child. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, never adverse to a good bit of PR, were conscious of this too, allowing free passage for pregnant women. A ship that had hosted a birth would be a lucky ship and people would want to sail on her.


Further Reading
JR Andrus. Burmese Economic Life. Stanford, 1947.
JF Cady. A History of Modern Burma. Ithaca, 1960.
Maurice Collis. Into hidden Burma. London, 1953.
JS Furnivall. An Introduction to the Political Economy of Burma. Rangoon, 1931.
Alister McCrae. Scots in Burma: Golden Times in the Golden Land. Gartmore, 1990.

Burma Handbook

A Burma River Journey - A Handbook for the Traveller by Pandaw Founder, Paul Strachan

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Jeremy Morgan posted in Dec 2020

Having just read the Blog on The Delta I must say I found this very interesting and something that I would consider when the World returns to normal.

Please keep me posted on future excursions, we have travelled with you before and really enjoyed the Pandaw experience.


Margaret (5 times a Pandaw cruiser) posted in Dec 2020

A fascinating read. Paul’s blogs are always full of amazing facts but above all he paints such a wonderful if realistic picture of Burma.